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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Another Oddity of the English Language

I was recently having a conversation with one of my Russian colleagues regarding the seemingly arbitrary use of "the" in front of certain country names.  Ask most people why we call Holland "the Netherlands," and they'll probably say: "Because it just sounds right."  But how is a non-native speaker to know what "sounds right?"

I did a little research, and came up with this excerpt from DePaul University's Editorial Style Guide.
Countries whose names are plural are preceded by the article "the" in written and verbal use: the Philippines, the Netherlands, the West Indies. Country names that denote a political entity also are preceded by the article "the": the Czech Republic, the United States, the Orange Free State, the United Arab Emirates. Countries named after the “patria”—the fatherland or motherland—do not need the article "the": America, Britain, France, Russia, New Zealand; contrary to popular usage, Ukraine and Sudan are never preceded by "the."
A rather terse and academic-sounding explanation, but you get the point. The folks at DePaul are on to something...Just think about it. We say "The United States" but just "America." Same thing with "The Netherlands" but then just "Holland." 

I've had a lot of fun with my Russian co-workers here, especially when it comes to editing their English drafts. There are no articles in Russian - no word for "a" or "the" or (for those of who have studied a romance language) the more complex French and Spanish equivalents, "la," "le," "lo," "les," etc.  So for someone who's walked around their whole life, saying "I want cup," "Give me pen," it's understandable that adding an extra - from their point of view, unnecessary - word would only complicate things. I would expect to have to go through and add a few "the's" to any English text written by a Russian.

But the funny thing is that some of them get a little over zealous with their "the's" and just start adding them everywhere! Let me give you some examples...

"We have been working with both the U.S. Library of Congress and the Catherine's Palace..."
"On Monday the Councilman John Doe and the assistant visited the Vologda High School No. 1..."
Believe me, there are more.  Sometimes the sentence structure in Russian is so strange to an English speaker that, if the person writing the text simply translated what they wanted to say word for word, I find myself completely incapable of deriving any meaning from their string of words. Just before leaving the office this afternoon I was called on to edit a quick paragraph. The last sentence read,

"The museum had to cancel the showing of two exhibits at museums
in Virgina and New York other than that they did not make
further plans to send any exhibits."

I read this about five times; staring at it; not getting it. Then, finally, I realized that it just needed to be separated with a period or semicolon. Read the following...do you get it now?

"The museum had to cancel the showing of two exhibits at museums in Virgina and New York. Other than that, they did not make further plans to send any exhibits."

So there's something to watch out for, next time you're editing a Russian's English paper.


  1. Interesting post there Ms. Foy. Thanks for sharing this info.


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