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The The

Definite articles shouldn’t cause any difficulty in the English language. Unlike in German, for instance, where a plethora of definite articles is used depending on gender and case, the English language knows only one: ‘the’. Easy.

Recently, however, ‘the’ has become a bit of an annoyance in certain publications. Every now and then ‘the’ seems to be capitalized when used in relation to the Netherlands. An example:

‘Moltoni’s Warbler is already split in The Netherlands and Italy from Subalpine Warbler’.

This example is lifted from Birdwatch magazine, a UK monthly; it is common practice here. Where is this strange usage coming from? Is it the idiosyncratic behaviour of a copy editor? Maybe Birdwatch uses a Dutch person to read their copy, as I have seen ‘The Netherlands’ used by Dutch people writing in English. Or maybe, they have been reading too much of the KLM in-flight magazine Holland Herald, another culprit. What is the justification of the misuse of ‘the’?

In a word, none. Unlike The Gambia, the only country that uses ‘The’ as part of its official name, the Netherlands do not add an article to their official denomination. In fact, like country names such as France, Germany and Italy, there shouldn’t really be an article preceding it. Since it is a plural noun, a preceding article is of course de rigeur.

Elevating ‘the’ to capital status almost makes it look like it has become part of the noun. It is not. We might end up with the The Netherlands, The-Netherlands or Thenetherlands.

A thorn in the flesh.