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News You Don't Say

Analogies don't work with grammar and names

A colleague has sent me an email recounting one of those interminable but sterile discussions that the Internet has enabled, this one about Ukraine vs. the Ukraine

Let's get that out of the way first. The country calls itself Ukraine, which gives the preference a degree of authority. The Ukraine is a relic of the time when it was a part of Russia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Ukrainians are touchy, feeling that the definite article reduces them to the status of a region rather than an independent nation. 

The preference in journalism for Ukraine over the Ukraine dates from the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence. (Oddly, though, the Associated Press Stylebook has not troubled to include an entry.)* 

If my say-so does not suffice, there's an excellent article from the BBC on the definite article and names of countries

The problem in discussions is that people will insist on dragging in analogous examples that merely cloud this issue. Yes, we do refer to the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, the Philippines, the Bronx. And not the Germany or the Queens. 

And yes, we used to refer to the Ukraine, but circumstances have changed. We used to refer to Upper Volta, but it's Burkina Faso now. We used to see Nyasaland on the map, but it's Malawi now. Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans deplore references to the Ukraine, and if you want to insist on it, you evidently have more time to respond to irritated readers than I do. 

The same resort to analogies often crops up in discussions of grammar and usage: "If you can say x, you ought to be able to say y." As an argument, it carries as much weight as those humorous articles on the eccentricities of English spelling (If the plural of mouse is mice, then the plural of house should be hice.) 

But many features of grammar, like names, are idiomatic; they just are that way. Sometimes, like the name of Ukraine, they can change, and arguments from logic and analogy will not carry you very far. 

 

 

*The estimable Gary Kirchherr corrects me: "It's buried in the 'Commonwealth of Independent States' entry. To wit: 'Ukraine (no "the").' " Many thanks, AP. 


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