"The Ukraine" or "Ukraine"? "The Netherlands" or "Netherlands"? "The Sudan" or "Sudan"? "The Ayatollah" or "Ayatollah"? "The Reverend" or "Reverend"?

In 2005, I asked Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor and Composition Manager, Thomas Pitoniak, replied as follows.

Q: According to historian Richard Pipes, “Ukraine is derived from the Slavic word for borderland, which explains why its name was traditionally—and in my opinion correctly—preceded by the, as is the case with ‘the Netherlands’ or ‘the Low Countries.’”

Does this rule, requiring “the” for Ukraine and Netherlands, hold for “ayatollah,” as in the Ayatollah Khomeini; “reverend,” as in the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr; or “Sudan”?

A: The use of “the” before terms like “reverend” is conventional in formal address.

“Reverend” started out as an adjective, and as is the case with “honorable” before a judge’s name, an article “the” before something like “the Reverend John Smith” is describing the whole person—title and name, not just the descriptive noun before the name. An example of the latter would be, “the quarterback Tom Brady.” In that case “quarterback” is a noun in attribution, and so “the” really belongs to that noun. If you want to think of articles and nouns as isolated binary pairs, then that pair, “the quarterback,” is indeed similar to “the Ukraine” in your account. But “the reverend” is not.

I wouldn’t use “the” before “Ayatollah,” but with “Sudan” it is common to do so.

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