When do I use 'of' before a name of a town, commune, river etc. ?

I'm lookin for American English if that makes a difference. I don't find the rule and I am unsure about the following cases:

  1. The river receives treated wastewater from the town [of?] Villeneuve-de-Berg.
  2. The study area encompasses the communes [of?] Mirabel and Berzème.

I wouldn't put 'of' before the name in the following sentence, although in theory it seems to be the same construction:

The river 'of' Thames flows through London.

Is there any general rule?

  • The rule here is only one question per question. Your Thames question makes it two. I don't much like the river receives there. I would do: Treated wastewater from Villeneuve-de-Berg town flows into the river. The river receives is La rivière reçoit, right?
    – Lambie
    May 24 at 17:31
  • 1
    Your logic is incorrect. It would not be "the river of Thames", it would be "the River Thames of London" or "London's River Thames". The last of these sounds perfectly normal. May 24 at 21:06
  • 1
    I was trying to get a general answer for "the [X] of [name]" // "the [X] [name]" with 'X' describing the category, this named something belongs to (town, river, mountain, island, ...). I was hoping for a general rule, but looks like there is no general rule and this question might be too large.
    – NicoH
    May 25 at 14:15
  • 1
    @JimmyJames I don't know where you're from, but in my part of the US at least, "Thames" sounds more like "tems" than "tims". Interesting. May 25 at 17:55
  • 1
    @ShawnV.Wilson - It's pronounced like Tems in the UK. If I heard someone call it the "Tims", I would think they were from New Zealand. the land where pen sounds like pin, and where deck sounds like something rude. LOL.
    – Billy Kerr
    May 25 at 17:59

6 Answers 6


Villeneuve-de-Berg, Mirabel and Berzème are all settlement place names. If you want to refer to settlements as communities, towns, etc. before the name, then you use "the X of".

The Thames, however, is a river, and if you want to put the word "river" in front of river names, there's no "of": The River Thames.

Most types of places take "of" before the place name, but there's an arbitrary list of types of places that don't. Here's a probably incomplete list with examples:

rivers (the River Thames)
lakes (Lake Titicaca)
mountains (Mount Everest)

Most other types of places take "of" before the place name:
The City of Toronto
The Bay of Fundy
The Republic of Korea

  • It's also used with names of people, such as John of Gaunt, where "Gaunt" means the city of Ghent. This is to distinguish him for other people named John. There are many historical examples. Likewise, a modern use would be something like, "John Smith of Hoboken purchased a 5th Avenue apartment yesterday," but this use is becoming rare.
    – Wastrel
    May 24 at 14:04
  • In "Bay of Fundy", "Bay of" is part of its name.
    – Barmar
    May 24 at 14:10
  • The word settlement is wrong; two are communes and one is a town. And this is wrong: Most other types of places take "of" before the place name: The Hudson River, Baffin Bay, Guanabara Bay. It's best not to cover every case because many are idiomatic and only that.
    – Lambie
    May 24 at 15:39
  • @Lambie I was only talking about when you put the type of place "before the place name". I didn't say it was true for all place names.
    – gotube
    May 25 at 0:12
  • 4
    @gotube I'm pretty sure "The Forest of Dean" isn't a fantasy, as are a few others in the UK (Essex, Arden, Mercia, Marston Vale, Avon, Ae); mostly these reflect a forest that was created within an existing geographic entity. Also The Cliffs of Moher/Dover and the Mountains of Mourne both are real. If there is a rule, you'd need to know all of the history and geography of the area to apply it. May 25 at 11:08

Gotube's answer is good, but I think there is more to say.

It's a matter of whether the classification (River, Bay etc) is felt to be part of the name or not.

As Gotube says, rivers, lakes, mountains never (or hardly ever) take "of".

Most other kinds of place usually do, but again, it depends on what the name is. "Crete" is the (English) name of a Greek island: we can refer to is as just "Crete". It would be very unusual to say "Crete Island", but more normal to say "the island of Crete".

On the other hand "Baffin Island" is the name of an island in Canada: the locals may call it just "Baffin", but generally its name is "Baffin Island", not "Baffin" or "the island of Baffin".

If you look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_islands_of_the_British_Isles, you'll see that the majority are listed with just a name (so we would say "the island of X" to refer to them with more precision), but a substantial minority are given with "X Island" or "Isle of X".

With bays, it's even more noticeable: gotube gave an example of "the Bay of Fundy", but if you look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_bays_of_the_United_States, the great majority are listed as "X Bay".

  • Bays: Baffin Bay, Guanabara Bay. Cape Cod Bay, to name just a few. The problem is not whether most are x or y, the problem is getting it right. I don't think it is a good idea to deal with all geography issues here and the OP has asked two different questions.
    – Lambie
    May 24 at 15:43
  • There's the River of Jordan. Perhaps the "of" was just to fit the meter of the song, or perhaps because it's to disambiguate from other geographical entities called Jordan. And if we go into foreign languages, there's Rio de Janeiro. May 25 at 17:30
  • @MichaelKay As far as I can tell, that's only used in the song. The actual river is (according to Wikipedia) known in English as either the River Jordan or the Jordan River (the former sounds more like UK usage to me, and the latter US usage). May 26 at 15:05
  • All those upvotes and not one mention of towns or communes in France.
    – Lambie
    Jul 9 at 18:47

With place names there are patterns, but there is no consistency and there are no rules. See for example https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/69657/when-to-put-river-before-or-after-its-name-and-why for discussion of whether "River" and "Mount" come before or after the proper name.

"of" is sometimes used for disambiguation: the State of New York versus the City of New York, the City of London versus Greater London. The Borough of Reading has different boundaries from the Diocese of Reading.

"City of Westminster" and "City of York" are common; yet for some reason it's "County of Devon" but "County Durham".

I've never heard "River of Thames", but "Waters of Tyne" is a well-known folk song; and we have the "Isle of Man" and the "Isle of Wight", whereas Scilly can be either the "Isles of Scilly" or the "Scilly Isles".

There's no rule.

  • The is also the state of New York. When there is a cap, it's very formal.
    – Lambie
    May 24 at 16:23
  • And to confuse the matter even more, there's a place called "King of Prussia" in Pennsylvania.
    – JimmyJames
    May 25 at 17:26
  • Yes, this. Don't look for grammatical rules in place names, because names don't come from grammarians, they come from common usage, and the people commonly use them don't care that the name they're using is inconsistent with what other people might call their own place names. May 26 at 4:42
  • Note that "City of London" is an actual place name. While it does, as you say, avoid ambiguity with Greater London (or just London), the "City of" is in this instance a compulsory part of the name; this is not generally true of other cities. May 26 at 16:03

It’s highly arbitrary. Native speakers like me can’t explain it, and several of us have already tried. On behalf of my ancestors, I apologize. I’m going to list a bunch of weird exceptions and corner cases, but before I do, here’s some practical advice: try searching Google or Google Books for both ways of saying it, and see if one is much more common than the other. There’s no simple rule, but that’s the fastest way to get an idea of how people talk.

For example, several of the answers say that of is “never” used with mountains, but there is at least one exception: most translations of Genesis 8:4 say, “the mountains of Ararat.” But some modern ones say, “the Ararat mountains.” (Unlike many grammatical quirks of English Bibles, this isn’t the result of an overly-literal word-for-word translation. There is no preposition before “Ararat” in the original Hebrew.)

Another answer that’s mostly-right says, “It's a matter of whether the classification (River, Bay etc) is felt to be part of the name or not.” However, the official website for Atlantic City says, “It’s a GREAT Day Here in The City of Atlantic City.” I admit, this sounds ridiculous to me, but a quick search shows many examples like “town of Levittown.”

In aristocratic titles, of is nearly always used in English (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Kingdom of Thailand, Principality of Monaco). This is consistent with “Ruler of Place” but less so with “Empire/Kingdom/Principality/Duchy/Whatever of Wherever.” Even German aristocratic names with zu or von und zu instead of von are normally either translated “of” or left untranslated.

The one rule that I truly can’t think of any exceptions to is: we only put of before a name that’s a noun, never one that’s an adjective. For example, either “the Sargasso Sea” or “the Sea of Sargasso,” or the “Sea of Japan,” but the names of most other seas and oceans are adjectives: Pacific, Mediterranean, Caspian, Antarctic. These are never preceded by of.

As for how it got that way? My best guess (I am not an expert) is that the English borrowed it from Latin.

Way, way back in prehistory, the Proto-Indo-European language, the ancestor of nearly all the languages of Europe, had suffixes for nouns that marked where or when things happened. (And observe that dates work similarly: we normally say “January fourth” or “January four,” but there is also a more formal construction, “the fourth of January.”) Today, we call that the locative case. Latin originally still used it, but by the time Rome became an empire (either the Roman Empire or the Empire of Rome, take your pick) these very old noun endings merged with others that happened to sound similar. For a lot of feminine singular names, that meant -ai turned into -ae, an ending that would often translate to of. (If an agricola is a farmer, agricolae could mean farmer’s or of the farmer.)

So, in the Bible verse I quoted above, which most English Bibles translate as “the mountains of Ararat,” the Latin version of the Bible that was used in England for centuries does use the -ae ending (“montes Armeniae”). Educated English-speakers often tried to imitate Latin grammar in the past. This matches the formality of the construction in English, its use for locations and dates, and that it only is used with nouns.

Unfortunately, like learning the history of why irregular plural nouns and past-tense verbs are the way they are, that won’t actually help you learn them.

  • 1
    There is a range of mountains in Northern Ireland called variously the Mountains of Mourne, the Mourne Mountains, and the Mournes. May 24 at 20:31
  • There are various eminences in Ireland and Scotland called the Hill of Something such as the Hill of Tara in County Meath, the Hill of O'Neill in County Tyrone, and the Hill of Uisneach in County Westmeath (all in Ireland) and plenty more in Scotland. May 24 at 21:51
  • @MichaelHarvey Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien was thinking of them when he invented “the Mountains of Moria.”
    – Davislor
    May 24 at 21:52
  • I now have an earworm, @MichaelHarvey. Don't be starting those fashions now, Mary McGee ...
    – TRiG
    May 25 at 2:43
  • The main question here is NOT about rivers. It's about being able in English to put the town adjectivally before the type of district. A commune is a French administrative district, as it were.
    – Lambie
    May 25 at 16:56

The word "of" is often used between a noun for a geographic location and the name of that location. I have no idea why that construction exists, but it does.

Examples include the isle of Manhattan, the country of Canada, the city of Detroit, the state of New Jersey, the continent of Antarctica, and the region of Bir Tawil.

The construction is occasionally used in ways that seem redundant. For example, there is no problem with saying "the city of Michigan City."

It seems like the construction isn't used with bodies of water. (The phrases "the Bay of Fundy" and "the Gulf of Mexico" are not examples of this construction, because the Bay of Fundy is never called just "Fundy" and the Gulf of Mexico is never called just "Mexico.") It doesn't seem to be used with mountains, either, probably because a mountain seems more like a geographic feature than a location.

  • Except of course for the Mountains of Mourne, or the Mount of Olives. May 24 at 16:01
  • No one says the isle of Manhattan today. No one would the city of Michigan City except in some very specialized documents. Also, in AmE, we use New Jersey state, etc, too.
    – Lambie
    May 24 at 16:23
  • @Lambie - When referring to the actions of a city government it is quite common to establish the distinction between the city and its government by saying The city of X. A phrase like, The city of Michigan City is saying no more dogs at the beach, makes perfect sense and would be a common thing to say.
    – EllieK
    May 24 at 16:27
  • @Lambie "No one says the isle of Manhattan today." – Nobody except for Ben Gibbard in the song "Marching Bands of Manhattan," of course! As for the other examples, they sound pretty natural to me (a 30 year old American) if preceded by the words "the entire." Would you say things like "the entire state of New Jersey" and "the entire city of Michigan City" or would you say something else instead? May 24 at 16:39
  • Sure, I am not saying we don't say state of x, I am saying something else. That we also use New York state, etc. It is not simple.
    – Lambie
    May 24 at 16:44

Samples from the OP:

The river receives treated wastewater from the town [of?] Villeneuve-de-Berg. The study area encompasses the communes [of?] Mirabel and Berzème.

Not covering every aspect of place names and English. That said:

For those places, you can do: the Mirable and Berzème communes AND Ville-neuve-de-Berg town. No need for of here at all.

the River Thames, I'm told most rivers names in the UK, the Indus or Indus River and the Seine River or the River Seine or just the Seine and the Hudson River. Many rivers are added at the end and capitalized.

That's just the way it is.

With my versions:
The river receives treated wastewater from Villeneuve-de-Berg town.
The study area encompasses the Mirabel and Berzème communes.

Not covering every aspect of place names and English. Especially rivers. Because that is a separate questions.

In English, we say: X and Y counties, X and Y districts. **We are not obliged to use: the districts of X and Y. This is quite hard to google but grammatically it is done all the time. ERGO, X and Y communes works perfectly well. It's shorter.

Also, wastewater from Villeneuve-de-Berg OR wastewater from Villeneuve-de-Berg town are both acceptable in administrative-type texts. There is often no need to say town or city when using the name of one. You would use town to distinguish it from say, the suburbs of a city.

  • 4
    I would prefer 'River Seine'. May 23 at 20:41
  • 2
    'The Villeneuve-de-Berg town' sounds completely strange to me (British English, born in the 70s). Are there versions of English where that is a natural phrasing? And indeed I don't think the Thames is a special case. The vast majority of English rivers would take 'River' first for local speakers: River Tyne, River Tweed, River Tamar, etc. But the opposite pattern seems to hold for North America, Australia, New Zealand, ... May 24 at 9:38
  • "the town of X" and "the X town" are not interchangeable. If X is a well-known place name , one can simply use "X" without the detail. May 24 at 10:19
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    I live quite near the River Avon, more specifically the Bristol Avon to distinguish it from the Warwickshire Avon (and three others). Locals tend to just call it the Avon. I live very near [the] Horfield Brook, and I have from time to time found myself up the Swanee River (or just the Swanee), or Shit Creek. May 24 at 12:13
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    @Lambie Not sure what you're saying I am mistaken about. You called the River Thames "a special case", but I don't see what you meant by that - the vast majority of the rivers of England follow that pattern. As I said just after, the opposite pattern tends to hold in the USA (and many other places), e.g. your Weir River. May 24 at 22:56

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