When are adjective-modified proper nouns compatible with the definite article?

"The former Yugoslavia" seems fine, but "the Victorian England" does not.

EDIT: Note that "the former Yugoslavia" does not require a postmodifier like a relative clause (e.g. "that we know") or a prepositional phrase (e.g. "of 1920") to be valid. On the other hand, "the Victorian England" requires something like "that we know" to be valid.

As an example, the US House of Representatives has a publication, in which it says, "As of the late 1980s, the former Yugoslavia was a diverse federation of six republics, comprised of many different ethnic groups that were often based on religious affiliation."

Why does such difference exist?

Previous threads claim that "the" indicates that the thing or person in quesion comes in many versions, and that "the" picks out a particular one. However, this account does not address why post-modifierless"Victorian England" never naturally takes "the," even though it can be contrasted with other versions of England such as "Elizabethan England" or "21st-century England."

  • Does this answer your question? "The Jesus who said" - why is there a definite article before the proper name "Jesus"?
    – stangdon
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 15:26
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    @stangdon Not really. There is no account for the fact that "Victorian England" doesn't take the article, whereas "former Yugoslavia" can.
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 15:57
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    "the former Soviet Union" and "the former British Empire" would be okay with the definite article even if "former" were removed, But "the Yugoslavia" is never natural without "former."
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 5:27
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    @Mari-LouA In fact, he even clarified this to you before you posted your answer.
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 8:20
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    Typically the research and your understanding of the topic being discussed you decide to share only after a question of yours is either downvoted, risks being closed or is in fact closed. You have a track history of asking some intelligent and thought-provoking question but you rarely cite your sources or the inspiration behind them. Editing after someone has spent time in writing a thoughtful answer is never "cool". This is not an academic paper, it's a Q&A site, the two are not the same.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 9:19

2 Answers 2


Although rare, it is possible to use the definite article with adjectives derived from proper nouns (proper adjectives) when we want to specify which version, e.g.

The Victorian England depicted by artists of that era is often a romanticised idealistic vision of England that contrasts sharply with its counterpart the Dickensian England.

From the web

  • The Dickensian England they inhabit is all soot and suppression. (source)

  • She has created a Victorian England which is, in all noticeable ways, exactly the Victorian England we know — the mother of our modern world… (source)

On the other hand, the adjective former is often accompanied by the definite article when we wish to specify the title, role or thing that has since been replaced, relocated or renamed. For example, Theresa May, the former British Prime Minister; the former ambassador to China; the former headquarters of NATO; the former summer palace; the former Soviet Union

From the comments, the OP points out

… but my question specifically targets oddballs like "the former Yugoslavia."

I believe my answer shows that English can modify common and proper nouns with "the former". There is nothing oddball about that usage.

We do not normally say "The former Italy" because there is no older Italy to refer back to. Although Italy was officially unified in 1870, it was not renamed "The [United] Republics and Kingdoms of Italy“. Italy has been a republic since 1947 and it continues to be called Italy. The country Yugoslavia, geopolitically speaking, no longer exists since its break-up in 1992. Hence we can refer to its former existence.

  • One crucial difference between your "the Victorian England" examples and "the former Yugoslavia" is that the latter does not require a postmodifier such as a relative clause or a prepositional phrase.
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 8:08
  • @Apollyon EDITED I agree BUT The former Yugoslavia is only a noun phrase if it is not followed by a verb. In fact, your question asks: When are adjective-modified proper nouns compatible with the definite article
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 8:11
  • Yes, but my question specifically targets oddballs like "the former Yugoslavia."
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 8:12
  • How about "the former Persia"?
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 8:56
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    @Mari-LouA I think your answer is quite reasonable given that we have no clue whatsoever on the context of how the locution was used. I am upvoting it. Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 14:16

It is very hard to answer this question because absolutely no context is provided.

If I were writing a history of the Balkans between 1919 and 1938, I would write “Yugoslavia” rather than “the Yugoslavia” or “the former Yugoslavia.” In the context of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Yugoslavia was the proper name of specific country.

If I were writing something about the Western Balkans today, the name “Yugoslavia” could describe different areas. I do not think that “the former Yugoslavia” is a particularly elegant locution, but it pretty clearly means

the [states that were formerly part of] Yugoslavia

Now the definite article makes grammatical sense. And to be grammatical the adverb “formerly” must become the adjective “former” in the ellipsis.


The original question seemed very vague to me. There is no question that “the former Yugoslavia” is an acceptable locution. I used it above.

There is also no question that proper names generally are not preceded by “the.” That general rule has exceptions. One such exception is that “the” does precede a proper name that is followed by a modifying phrase or relative clause. The question seems to be why does that exception have an exception if the proper name is preceded by an adjective.

Assuming I now understand what question was intended, there are two answers.

First, grammar is what it is. It is not a set of logically derived theorems from a known set of axioms. We can perhaps give a supportable historical explanation for why “You is” is not grammatical, but no logical explanation for the vagaries of the conjugation of the English “be” or for the disappearance of the singular second pronoun “thou” and its conjugation is possible.

Second, in this case, a sort of logic can be retrofitted to the exceptions.

The general grammatical rule is that a definite article shall precede a noun that has, either previously or implicitly, been distinguished from others in the class to which it refers. “The man” refers to a specific, identifiable exemplar of a class.

Proper nouns are a general exception to the preceding rule, possibly on the premise that a class with only one member does not require further identification.

Joe Biden is currently president of the U.S.

There is no need to specify which of the people named “Joe Biden” who are currently president of the U.S. is meant because there is only one.

Now the moment that our thought classifies the single entity that a proper name denotes into a set of multiple entities, we revert to the more general rule.

The thoughtful Joe Biden

The gregarious Joe Biden

The angry Joe Biden

We are now thinking of different behaviors of one man. It is a set with multiple exemplars and we are identifying one of them by an adjective.

Whether this identification occurs through a preceding adjective or following phrase or clause makes no difference.

The former Yugoslavia

is identifying one of a set of names for a particular geographical, linguistic area.

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    What context would help? "The former Yugoslavia" is a common expression in a variety of contexts, but "the Yugoslavia" is always incorrect in any context.
    – gotube
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 5:25
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    @Mari-LouA I meant exactly the noun phrase, "the Yugoslavia".
    – gotube
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 5:43
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    @JeffMorrow See the re-edited question.
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 14:31
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    @JeffMorrow You might not have grapsed gotube's meaning. He meant to say the bone of contention is the phrase "the Yugoslaiva" without a postmodifier like "of 1920." With a postmodifier, the use of the definite article is unremarkable.
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 14:42
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    Re your first explanation, formal linguists do view grammar as a set of logically derived theorems from a known set of axioms. A Holy Grail, maybe. Re your second explanation, it is unclear why the same justification is unavailable to "the Victorian England."
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 16:27

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