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"The University of Minnesota is a highly ranked public research university offering a wide range of undergraduate and graduate programs."

"Harvard University is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, and to developing leaders in many disciplines who make a difference globally."

Those two sentences are quoted from the official websites of those two schools. Why is there a "the" in front of "university of Minnesota" but not in front of "Harvard University"? How can we decide when to use a definite article in front of a proper noun?

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    "Harvard University" is a proper name, so no article is used. Think of the other one as "The University (of Minnesota)". A specific university that happens to be in Minnesota. I imagine the article here could be optional though.
    – user3169
    Jan 25 '18 at 4:21
  • I don't know what the situation is like in the US, but certainly in the UK it is normal to front the location of a university, and then the article is not required. "The University of Oxford" is the proper name, "Oxford University" is much more widely used, and Oxford is (in an academic context) probably even more widely used.
    – JavaLatte
    Jan 25 '18 at 6:29
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Proper nouns should be distinguished from proper names.

A proper noun refers to a single word belong to the word class of 'noun'. For example, both Minnesota and Harvard are proper nouns. In general, you may not put the definite article before a proper noun.

On the other hand, a proper name is the whole noun phrase that may or may not include a proper noun. For example, both The University of Minnesota and Harvard University are proper names.

As a general rule of thumb, try to use only the proper noun part of the proper name and see if the proper noun part alone can mean what the proper name purports to mean. If it can, then you cannot use the definite article for the proper name. If not, then you must use the definite article.

For example, Harvard alone can mean Harvard University, so you cannot use the:

She went to Harvard.

She went to Harvard University.

*She went to the Harvard University.

Also, Minnesota alone cannot mean The University of Minnesota. So, you must use the:

She went to Minnesota. (She went to the state of Minnesota.)

*She went to University of Minnesota.

She went to the University of Minnesota.

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  • This is complicated by the fact that lots of Americans will use the state alone to mean "university of [state]". If I asked someone where she earned her PhD and she said, "Minnesota," I would automatically assume that means the University of Minnesota, not one of the many other universities in the same state. Similarly, you'll hear college sports reporters write about the "Michigan versus Michigan State game." Jan 25 '18 at 19:58
  • @CanadianYankee Good point. And that's why I called it a rule of thumb. Also, in your scenarios, they can get away with the simpler Minnesota or Michigan simply because their context temporarily makes the proper nouns proper names for the respective universities.
    – JK2
    Jan 25 '18 at 23:03
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When dealing with names of things like universities a good rule of thumb would be that if it starts with something that would be a proper noun on its own like "Harvard University", "Vancouver Island University", "Simon Fraser University", "Camosun College" then it generally doesn't take a definite article. If it starts with what would be a regular noun on its own then it should take a definite article as in "The University of Victoria", "The University of Toronto", "The University of British Columbia".

If as in the case of Oxford you can arrange the name in different ways, whether you add the article depends on which way you arrange it. "The University of Oxford", "Oxford University".

Institutes of technology seem to be an exception in that they can optionally take a "the" even if they start with an otherwise proper noun. "The Massachusetts Institute of Technology", "The British Columbia Institute of Technology".

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