10

New Zealand has a North and a South Island. These seem to be their names, as they are capitalized even on Wikipedia.

I am pretty sure it should be "we go to the North Island", and not "we go to North Island", as this is what they write in their newspapers, and also on Wikipedia. But... I need to explain why, and I cannot find the reason.

Grammarly corrects this one wrong to "[...] bad weather in North Island." (see also). Does anyone have a kind of official reference to reasoning?

10
  • 2
    It's a proper name. Like 'North America'.
    – Dan
    Aug 9 at 10:14
  • 7
    But we don't say the North America. ;-) Aug 9 at 10:21
  • 10
    Does this answer your question? Using THE before some countries The highest scored answer states an article is used when the name refers to a geographic or cultural region, a group of islands, or another feature or landmark: The Bahamas
    – ColleenV
    Aug 9 at 10:42
  • 2
    @gidds - agreed, though that particular transition would be unlikely, as Northland and Southland are already a distinct region of NZ (being the northern part of the North Island and southern part of the South Island respectively)... and unlike the islands which are little more than descriptive, those are the proper names of the old administrative provinces. Aug 10 at 22:32
  • 2
    Use of articles in placenames can be fairly arbitrary. For example, if you live in Los Angeles, it's correct to refer to freeways using a definite article. "Take the 5 to some place" is correct and normal. If you live a very short distance away in San Diego, this usage sounds strange and marks you as a recent transplant from the north; "Take 5 to some place" is normal. Aug 11 at 16:50

5 Answers 5

24

It is not at all uncommon in English (and other languages) for established regions of countries to be prefixed with a definite article.

See:

  • the Camargue (in France)
  • the Algarve (in Portugal)
  • the Bavarian Forest (in Germany)
  • the Highlands (in Scotland)
  • the South (in the USA)

and many more examples.

In this instance, the North Island is being given a definite article to indicate that it is a known, established region of New Zealand and not just any small island within the territory of New Zealand.


Incidentally, for those who have wondered but have never known the definitive answer, this is why it's important to say Ukraine and not the Ukraine.

The Ukraine was a known, established "borderland" region of Romanov-ruled Imperial Russia. Due to inertia as much as anything else, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic continued to be referred to as the Ukraine.

But the post-1991, independent country, isn't any sort of region within any sort of Russian Empire.

That's why it is Ukraine (without a definite article).

20
  • 23
    The Netherlands isn't an "established region of a country".
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 9 at 11:35
  • 9
    @ColinFine - The official name of the country is The Kingdom of the Netherlands (Note that the name is not, The Kingdom of Netherlands). It's kind of like The United States, part of the name. See also The UK. I think if France was called The Kingdom of the Franks we might call it The Franks. Aug 9 at 14:19
  • 3
    @EllieK - I'd prefer the UK, only capitalising 'the' if it is the first word of a sentence or title. Likewise: "The official name of the country is the Kingdom of the Netherlands" - Holland,com. Strictly, it's Koninkrijk der Nederlanden Aug 9 at 14:35
  • 3
    @EllieK: that's my point. (The official name is not really relevant). The name of that country (which is not a "region of a country" is "The Netherlands".
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 9 at 19:56
  • 3
    @ColinFine - your question is an excellent counterpoint: if the Netherlands (once an established region of the Holy Roman Empire) is now a country but continues to be prefixed with the definite article, why should omitting the article matter when it comes to Ukraine? I can't answer this definitively but in official contexts like FIFA World Cup 2022, or the Eurovision Song Contest 2022 in Turin, or at the United Nations, or in the European Union, we see, repeatedly, that the country is (explicitly, consistently and unambiguously) listed as Netherlands - there is no definite article. Aug 9 at 21:52
20

Naming is highly ideosyncratic. While there are some common patterns, there are also many exceptions, and this is one of them.

You can't usually identify reasons for the exceptions, they just happen out of tradition. There are no hard rules to it.

It's similar to nation names. They aren't usually preceded by "The", but there are exceptions like The Netherlands, The Vatican, and The United States of America.

6
  • 1
    Another great example of how these are based on historical contingencies and not on grammatical rules is that it's "Shetland" not "The Shetlands" But it's "The Hebrides" and "The Faroes." Aug 9 at 23:58
  • 1
    I am part Shetlander. My family have always referred to our ancestral home as "The Shetlands". Aug 10 at 7:49
  • Netherlands, Vatican City, and United States all lack an article in their official English short name, despite common usage. bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18233844
    – Tristan
    Aug 10 at 9:31
  • 1
    @Tristan from that same article: "In general, use of the definite article is unpredictable. Why should it be London but The Thames? There is no logic for it yet this is the way it is"
    – Barmar
    Aug 10 at 13:24
  • 1
    @Tristan OK. But I think we're talking about what people actually say, not what some official documents proscribe.
    – Barmar
    Aug 10 at 13:43
11

Speaking as a NZer, it's the North Island simply because it's a descriptive label... out of the two main islands that make up the country, it's the northern one. And likewise the South Island being the southern one.

The real question is why the name is capitalized. It's not a name with any political or administrative significance, just a label for the geographic entities. But given the significance of the two main Islands as opposed to the many little islands around the country, it gets capitalized because we're talking about the North Island, not just some other island that's north of another. And in that sense, it's formally recognised as a place name.

...

An interesting diversion which Simon Crase put me onto - until about 1880, the South Island was commonly known as the Middle Island instead, with "South Island" referring to the much smaller Stewart Island. For whatever reason - probably due to minimal influence of Steward Island on national affairs - the usage shifted to what it is today, with the modern usage of South Island being formalised by the Lands and Survey Department (now Land Information NZ) in 1907.

16
  • 2
    Here is a map of the Middle Island of New Zealand, drawn in 1884. The Middle Island is, of course, now known as the South Island. Middle relative to what? I am sure that I have seen an old map where the 3rd biggest island, Stewart Island, was labelled "South Island". Now Stewart Island, (population 402) has over twice the land area of Singapore (population 5.686 million), so maybe it wasn't obvious in the 19th century that Stewart Island wasn't going to become a major population centre. Aug 9 at 22:06
  • 1
    Interesting... I've not seen that term used before, but after you've put me onto it, I've found this article (natlib.govt.nz/blog/posts/a-tale-of-two-islands) which talks about the subject based on analysis of old newspaper records. Apparently "Middle Island" was indeed in widespread use early on, before giving way to "South Island" in the latter part of the 19th century... Aug 9 at 23:56
  • 6
    Oh, and of course, there's the old joke about the "West Island" just across the Tasman... Aug 10 at 0:10
  • 2
    @MartinKealey I have been to Rakiura Stewart Island. I have tramped on Stewart Island. I accept that the climate may be to tough for some delicate people, though. The latitude is just a tad over 47 degrees South. Edinburgh is nearly 56 degrees North, Oslo nearly 60, Stockholm just over 50 degrees; the Scots and Scandinavians manage this fine. As for shipping lanes, Aotearoa New Zealand was a long way from shipping lanes before it was colonized. The first Pakeha settlers were sealers and whalers, so it was as well connected to shipping as any other part of NZ at that time. Aug 10 at 9:26
  • 2
    I thought it was "the Mainland" simply because it's larger; also that Dunedin during the gold rush era was the largest city in New Zealand. Aug 12 at 4:44
5

The New Zealand Geographic Board seemingly has a strange dislike for arthrous proper nouns (including its own moniker), and declared in 2009 that the official English names are simply "North Island" and "South Island", despite common usage to the contrary. So if you're looking in an index, they're under "N" and "S", not "T".

Prior to that they didn't actually have official names at all.

I wonder whether our continued use of "The" in English is connected to using "Te" in the Māori names Te Ika-a-Māui (The Fish of Māui = The North Island) and Te Waipounamu (The Jade Waters = The South Island).

2
  • 4
    I wouldn't expect "The North Island" to be indexed under "T", anyway. Then too many things would be indexed under "T". Usually it would be indexed as "North Island, the"
    – user253751
    Aug 10 at 17:42
  • @user253751 you and I learned at school to file things correctly, but it's been many years since Telecom's White Pages (book) abandoned standard indexing and started putting "The XYZ" between "Thankless" and "Theory"; in a future where almost nobody looks up records in physical books, I can't see the old standard being kept alive for long. Aug 17 at 5:11
2

Unfortunately there is little in the way of hard-and-fast rules on which place names take a definite article, and to make matters even worse, common usage often disagrees with the official position of relevant governments.

This article from the BBC provides some examples:

There are many other country names that are habitually referred to with "the", such as Congo, Gambia, Yemen, Lebanon, Sudan, Netherlands, Philippines and Bahamas.

But according to several authoritative sources, such as the CIA World Factbook, the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World and the US Department of State, only two countries, The Bahamas and The Gambia, should officially be referred to with the article.

The two Congos are officially Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo. And the longer, official name for Netherlands is Kingdom of the Netherlands.

And a rule of thumb on common usage:

In some of the other cases, says Ashworth, it's largely a question of usage and how people refer to them. Quite commonly, definite articles are attached to areas where they have a mix between geophysical names and a physical entity.

"Groups of islands like the Maldives and the Bahamas. You wouldn't say 'I'm going to Maldives, you'd say 'I'm going to the Maldives' because it's a geographical area."

Countries like the United States of America and the United Kingdom also carry the definite article because they are compound nouns with adjectives.

Professor Liberman says the habit of putting "the" in front of place names is heard throughout the English-speaking world and is common to Germanic and Romance languages.

"In general, use of the definite article is unpredictable. Why should it be London but The Thames? There is no logic for it yet this is the way it is.

Note that whilst this mostly agrees with the advice from grammarly, but handles the case of the United States and the United Kingdom differently.

In the case of the two main islands of New Zealand, the common use of the article aligns with the rule of thumb from the BBC that compound nouns with an adjective often carry the definite article. According to the New Zealand government however, the northern & southern islands should be referred to without an article as North Island & South Island respectively when the English name is used. The official Māori names (Te Ika-a-Māui & Te Waipounamu respectively) do include the Māori definite article "te" though.

So which should you say?

For most purposes, I would use a definite article here, and it is certainly what I have heard the most in the UK (including from New Zealanders). In official contexts, especially if in New Zealand, I might follow the New Zealand government and drop the article.

I will add that the sentence "we go to the North Island" suggests that this is something you do regularly (it is an odd quirk of English that for most verbs* the present tense describes a habitual actions or statements that are true regardless of the time, rather than a single action taking place in the present). If you are instead talking about a specific trip that is not part of a regular habit we would say "we are going to the North island" using the present progressive.

*Exceptions are copula verbs like to be, to appear, & to seem; verbs of sensation like to see (but not its more active counterpart to look), to feel & to think; and modal verbs like can, may, & should (modal verbs don't have a present participle so cannot form the present progressive).

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .