Ukraine or "the Ukraine"?

Andrew Gregorovich

THE NAME UKRAINE, which first appeared in the historical chronicles in 1187, has been common in the English language for almost 350 years. In the earliest years it appeared without the definite article "the" but in this century the definite article increasingly preceded the name Ukraine.

First of all we might note that the Ukrainian language has no articles so this is not a factor except indirectly. The reason for this is that many Ukrainian immigrant scholars, due to their imperfect knowledge of English, used the form "the Ukraine" in their books thus helping to perpetuate this usage.

Does English grammar require the definite article the before Ukraine? Ukraine is the name of an independent country. There are only two groups of countries which require the article in English: Those with plural names such as the United States or the Netherlands. The others have names with adjectival or compound forms which require the article, such as the United Kingdom, the Dominion of Canada, or the Ukrainian SSR.

English grammar does not require a definite article before the names of singular countries such as England, Canada or Ukraine.

Geographical regions such as the Arctic, the Atlantic, the North, the West, and the prairies all require the definite article, but these are not countries. Since 1917 Ukraine has had very definite borders so it cannot be regarded as merely a region. Some people have mistakenly thought that Ukraine is a general word meaning "the borderland;' "the steppes" or "the prairies;' which would require the article. A few neanderthal writers in the past have even promoted "the Ukraine" to reflect the original meaning "the borderland" in order to diminish the international political stature of Ukraine. They betrayed their ignorance of Ukraine, or their bias against it, with this usage. See for example, the view of Robert 0. Grover in the U.S. News & World Report (Dec. 9, 1991).

Is there any other reason to use the definite article in English with Ukraine? Usage has been suggested as a reason but this cannot be accepted today since the majority of books and newspapers do not use it.

For example, the authoritative five volume Encyclopedia of Ukraine edited by Danylo Struk and published by the University of Toronto Press does not use it. The article is not used by such prominent publications as The Ukrainian Quarterly (New York), Ukrainian Review (London, England), Forum Ukrainian Review (Scranton, Pa.), Ukrainian Voice (Winnipeg), Ukrainian Echo (Toronto), Journal of Ukrainian Studies (Toronto), Ukrainian News (Edmonton) or News From Ukraine (Kiev). In fact, today there is no Ukrainian periodical in English which uses the article although Harvard Ukrainian Studies once forced it on scholarly contributors.

But what about the regular daily press in the USA, Canada and England? Even The New York Times (which once required it in its Style Guide) does not use it now. Neither do The Times (London), The Economist (London), Washington Post, TIME, Newsweek or Maclean's. News services such as Canadian Press, Reuters, CNN and Associated Press do not use the article. When the December 1991 referendum confirmed the independence of Ukraine the White House in Washington, D.C. officially announced that it would discontinue use of the definite article before the name Ukraine.

Even the computer age has ruled that "the" Ukraine is wrong in English. Gram-mat-ik, the very popular grammar and style checker for computers by Reference Software International of San Francisco, uses Ukraine without the article and labels "the Ukraine" as a mistake of grammar.

There appears to be virtually no grammatical or logical reason to use the definite article before the name Ukraine. But it is still encountered occasionally because of habit or because the writer is careless or ignorant about Ukraine. Sir Bernard Pares the eminent English historian of Russia suggested that "the Ukraine" came from French usage. We say Ia France, le Canada and l'Ukraine in French but not 'the France; 'the Canada' or 'the Ukraine' in the English language. The definite article the does not add anything to the meaning or clarity when used before the proper noun Ukraine.

Now, the exception to the rule. Yes, it is possible for "the Ukraine" to be correct in English but it is a very rare usage in apposition to contrast the past with the present. For example, one could correctly say, "The America of George Washington is not the America of Bill Clinton" as well as "The Ukraine of Shevchenko is not the Ukraine of Kravchuk."

We may conclude then, that the use of the definite article in English before the name Ukraine is awkward, incorrect and superfluous. Writers who care about good style in their English grammar and the correctness of their language will always avoid the use of "the Ukraine" and use only the simpler and correct "Ukraine."

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Copyright © 1994 Andrew Gregorovich

Reprinted from FORUM Ukrainian Review No. 90, Spring/Summer 1994
Published by the Ukrainian Fraternal Association
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Originally Composed: Tuesday May 5th 1998.
Date last modified: Friday February 4th 2000.