19

Possibly two questions in here: Are these sentence constructions logical, and if they are, why are they different?

I swam across the Ocmulgee River.
I swam across the Pacific Ocean.
I swam across the Red Sea.
I swam across Lake Winnipeg.

I can't think of a way of phrasing the lake example while using an article with a proper noun. I thought at first it was because Lake Winnipeg is different; it's generic portion (the "Lake") comes first and the name of that body comes second, but I swam across Falls Lake is the same.

Yet the sentence I swam across the lake sounds right to me. ...Why?

  • 2
    Sometimes we do. "I swam across the Great Salt Lake". – Peter Shor Jan 5 '13 at 19:31
19

I'd say you are correct about the placement of the generic word being the reason for using (or not using) 'the' , and all your examples are phrased correctly. Notice that 'Falls' is different also in that it is a plural.

Edit: I have found the answer:

From Wikipedia:

In English, nouns must in most cases be preceded by an article that specifies the presence or absence of definiteness of the noun. The definite article is the in all cases other than generic references, which use the zero article (i.e., the absence of an article), while indefiniteness is expressed with a or an for singular nouns or the zero article for plural or non-count nouns.

From Monmouth University:

The definite article 'the' is used before both singular and plural nouns when the noun is specific. The names of geographic places are specific names and may require definite articles: names of rivers, oceans, seas, geographical areas, deserts, forests, gulfs, peninsulas, groups of lakes (the Great Lakes), mountain ranges, and chains of islands.

No article is necessary before the following specific nouns: Singular names of countries or territories, cities, towns, states, streets, lakes, bays, mountains, continents, islands, languages, sports, academic subjects.

  • The fact that "Falls" is plural makes no difference. Same construction works for lake Michigan. – simchona Jun 28 '12 at 4:08
  • yes, I realized that shortly after answering, and subsequently found the correct answer. – bee.catt Jun 28 '12 at 4:32
  • 1
    There is also The Hague, an archaic reference that stuck around. – bee.catt Jun 28 '12 at 6:56
  • 1
    It's 'The Hague' because the Dutch is 'den Haag'. – Barrie England Jun 28 '12 at 7:07
  • 1
    Those who live in The Hague never stopped using an old-fashioned name that described the place according to its medieval use. We get the official name Den Haag from Des Graven Hage, which means "the counts' hedge" and refers to the fact that Dutch noblemen once used the land for hunting. Many other place names started off as descriptions with definite articles. For example, the city of Bath, England, famous for its purportedly health-supporting natural spring, was referred to as "The Bath" until the 19th century. Etc... – bee.catt Jun 28 '12 at 7:15
6

The use of definite articles with names for inanimate objects in English should be understood on a case-by-case basis. There is, as far as I know, no principled reason behind the distribution of definite articles.

Here is what Hawthorne and Manley (2012) say on the subject:

in English there are various situations where names in subject position require articles. Thus, when modifying names with adjectives we almost always add articles: ‘A/The bleary-eyed Bill Clinton emerged’, ‘Now the incredibly agile Jordan is weaving through his opponents’....

Even unmodified singular names are often prefixed by the definite article, such as names for rivers and newspapers.... Moreover, no deep distinction divides names that are prefixed by the article and those that are not. Names for oceans typically have an article, while names for lakes typically do not; in California, numerical names for highways have them (‘take the 405’), while on the east coast they do not (‘take 287’). One might object that, for example, in ‘the Thames’ the article is somehow fused into the name and no longer functions as a determiner. But note that the article gets distanced from the name when adjectives are added: ‘the mighty Thames’, ‘the vast Pacific’, ‘the notorious Wall Street Journal’ and so on.

Hawthorne and Manley, The Reference Book (2012).

From this passage, we observe:

  • Name for rivers typically have articles ("the Thames", "the Nile", "the Niagara River").
  • Names for oceans typically have articles ("the Atlantic", "the Indian Ocean").
  • Names for lakes typically don't ("Lake Erie", "Lake Michigan").
  • In California, names for highways have articles ("take the 405").
  • On the east coast, names for highways don't have them ("take 287").
  • Names for newspapers typically have articles ("the Wall Street Journal", "the New York Times").

We might add:

  • Like oceans, seas also have articles ("the Mediterranean Sea", "the Black Sea").
  • Waterfalls typically don't have articles ("Niagara Falls", "Victoria Falls")
  • Canyons sometimes have articles, but sometimes don't ("the Grand Canyon", "Colca Canyon")

You can make similar observations about names for bridges, buildings, squares, publications, etc.

Why names for some types of geological features and artifactual entities seem to require the definite article while others don't is an open question. There may be no principled reason.

  • It used to be just Southern California (and not Northern) that put the before its numbered freeways, but I think this is spreading. – Peter Shor Sep 5 '16 at 23:24
3

The use of the is governed by the rules of grammar. For your case,

Use "the" before the names of rivers, oceans, seas and groups of lakes.

  • For e.g., the Nile, the English channel, the Atlantic, the Great Lakes

Do not use "the" before the names of lakes and bays.

  • For e.g., Lake Geneva, Lake Erie

If you want a more thorough list, head over here.

  • 3
    Unfortunately, like many correct answers about English, this amounts to "because that's how people do it." – Nathan Long Jun 28 '12 at 10:29
  • @NathanLong That's seeming like what it is. I was hoping for a little bit more logic. Although, in the link above, the example about the United States kind of makes sense because there are multiple United States but (Mexico) but when people say the US they really mean of America. I don't know the root of the others as well to say the same logic holds: Phillipines, Netherlands, (Dominican must be a religious thing, the Dominicans could have have more than one republic and that's the most popular one?) – Brad Jun 28 '12 at 12:00
  • 2
    -1 It's not a "rule of grammar". As implied by Nathan, it's simply a reflection of what we actually say - historical accident, idiomatically established. – FumbleFingers Jun 28 '12 at 12:17
  • @FumbleFingers Why not? Rule: one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere – user20934 Jun 28 '12 at 12:38
  • @rudra: I think we must just agree to differ on this one. Your understanding of "rules of grammar" is different to mine. Established idiomatic usage doesn't count for me. – FumbleFingers Jun 28 '12 at 13:30
2

Perhaps there is a geographic explanation. Oceans, rivers and seas usually encompass greater distances/areas than lakes or ponds; the latter have an arguably more fixed location.

This zero article "rule" seems to hold true with

  1. stationary bodies of water of a limited size, i.e. bays, lakes, and ponds. (Swamps, marshes and bogs are not 100% water.)
  2. flowing bodies of water smaller than a river, i.e. creeks and springs.
  • Also "Niagara Falls", "Victoria Falls", and so forth. – Peter Shor Mar 28 '13 at 11:46
0

I'd say you are correct about the placement of the generic word being the reason for using (or not using) 'the', and all your examples are phrased correctly. Notice that 'Falls' is different also in that it is a plural.

From Wikipedia:

  • An article is a word that is used alongside a noun (…) to specify grammatical definiteness of the noun, and in some languages extending to volume or numerical scope. The articles in English grammar are the and a/an, and in certain contexts some. "An" and "a" are modern forms of the Old English "an", which in Anglian dialects was the number "one" (compare "on" in Saxon dialects) and survived into Modern Scots as the number "owan". Both "on" (respelled "one" by the Norman language) and "an" survived into Modern English, with "one" used as the number and "an" ("a", before nouns that begin with a consonant sound) as an indefinite article. […]

  • The definite article is used to refer to a particular member of a group or class. It may be something that the speaker has already mentioned or it may be something uniquely specified.

  • However, recent developments show that definite articles are morphological elements linked to certain noun types due to lexicalization. Under this point of view, definiteness does not play a role in the selection of a definite article more than the lexical entry attached to the article.

From Monmouth University:

The definite article 'the' is used before both singular and plural nouns when the noun is specific. The names of geographic places are specific names and may require definite articles: names of rivers, oceans, seas, geographical areas, deserts, forests, gulfs, peninsulas, groups of lakes (the Great Lakes), mountain ranges, and chains of islands.

No article is necessary before the following specific nouns: Singular names of countries or territories, cities, towns, states, streets, lakes, bays, mountains, continents, islands, languages, sports, academic subjects.

  • Ahh, f**k it. I've just realized this is a duplicate of the first answer. – Mari-Lou A Oct 6 '17 at 7:57
  • The Wikipedia excerpt cited; however, is not duplicated (I couldn't find the original). The Monmouth link and citation is identical. @Arnav copied and pasted the accepted answer in their answer box. The mind boggles, and nobody noticed until today. – Mari-Lou A Oct 6 '17 at 8:50
-1
  1. The article the originates from demonstrative pronoun that. A speaker, using that before a noun, implies that the listener knows what the speaker is talking about, in other words, the noun is definite. Hence, to use the both the speaker and the listener should be aware of the noun in question.

  2. The English language originates from the UK, which is a big island with several smaller ones around. The people who coined English knew the only sea, the one which surrounded their islands. Everyone knew about that sea. Thus we now use the before seas. The same goes for mountain chains, archipelagos, and rivers. There were few of them and they were easy to remember, so everyone would know them. That is why we now use the before mountain chains, archipelagos, and rivers. On the other hand, there were a lot of lakes, mountains, and separate islands. The chances that your listener would know a particular island were extremely small. That is why we do not use the before lakes, mountains, and separate islands, as they are indefinite.

  • There are more rivers than lakes in the UK. Loch Ness in Scotland is pretty famous for the Scots so why isn't there the article? Likewise, I'm pretty certain the Scots all knew about Ben Nevis, (it's hard to miss) but that doesn't have an article. – Mari-Lou A Oct 6 '17 at 5:58
  • And the English language wasn't "coined" by a group of people, where is your reference that supports this idea? – Mari-Lou A Oct 6 '17 at 5:59
  • As for lakes and rivers, it only means that for some reason a dialect spoken by people, knowing more rivers than lakes, became more prevailing. There could have been many reasons, like the extinction of the tribe, knowing more lakes than rivers, or it could have happened that a written artifact of the "river" people became very popular along with the use of "the" with rivers. – Vasya Sheromova Oct 16 '17 at 11:07
  • May be I did use a wrong term. But I am afraid I fail to conceive what's wrong with "the English language "coined" by a group of people". I meant to say that people living in England used a signal system that became later a language, and those people changed the language by using it. – Vasya Sheromova Oct 16 '17 at 11:12

protected by tchrist Oct 6 '17 at 11:44

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