The Netherlands, the Netherlands or Netherlands?

One issue arising in almost every bit of legal writing is whether the name of the country should be styled as “The Netherlands” or “the Netherlands” in a given context. This is complicated by the fact that sometimes just “Netherlands” is used.

The Netherlands is one of those countries whose English name is preceded by a definite article. Let’s look at some of these country names (remembering that we’re looking at the short names, not the longer, more formal names).

1. Special name based on geographic feature
2. Island nation
3. Name with noun and adjective
Sudan / the Sudan The Bahamas the United Arab Emirates
The Gambia / Gambia the Philippines the United States
Ukraine / the Ukraine the Comoros the United Kingdom
Congo / the Congo the Solomon Islands the Dominican Republic
the Marshall Islands the Czech Republic
Ivory Coast / the Ivory Coast

Group 1 consists of countries that have historically been referred to by the name attached to its most significant geographical feature, e.g. a river (Congo & The Gambia), a desert (Sudan) or a borderland (Ukraine). Group 2 consists of island nations that have historically been referred to, either expressly or by implication, as a group of islands. Group 3 consists of countries that have names consisting of an adjective and a noun.

A question of usage, not logic

Where does “the Netherlands” fit in here? Well, this country’s English name is unique. Although “-land” is common enough as a name ending, no other country in the world has a name in English that ends with “-lands” or “Lands”. (There are similar names for regions called “the Lowlands” and “the Highlands” in Scotland, but the English usage for these names does not mirror the usage for “the Netherlands”.)

  • “The Netherlands” could perhaps fit into Group 1. The country’s name refers to its most significant geographical feature, i.e. the low-lying land. However, this feature doesn’t have a separate toponym (like “Congo” or “Sudan”). Although the word “nether” is rare in modern English, the name is recognisible to English speakers as a way of saying “lowlands”.
  • “The Netherlands” could fit into Group 2 if were possible to treat “Islands” and “-lands” the same way.
  • If the name were written as “Nether Lands” or “Low Lands” in English, the country’s name could fit neatly into Group 3. In the end, “the Netherlands” doesn’t really fit into any of these three groups.

Perhaps it is better not to look for logic here. It’s difficult to find naming patterns, and there are a few inconsistencies:

  • We don’t say “the Iceland” or “the Greenland”, so why do we say “the Netherlands”?
  • It is no longer acceptable to refer to “the Ukraine” and “the Ivory Coast”, yet it’s correct to refer to “the Netherlands” and “the United States”.
  • Why is it officially “The Gambia” and “The Bahamas”, but not “The Netherlands” or “The United Kingdom”?

There are no easy explanations. Prof. Anatoly Liberman, a professor specialising in etymology, uses wording like “unpredictable”, “arbitrary” and “no reason” when discussing it. Each of these country names receives separate treatment from an English style perspective. According to Mick Ashworth, former editor and consultant to the Times Atlas, “it’s largely a question of usage”.

So what is the usage regarding “the Netherlands”? There are a few basic guidelines here and a few points worth making.

There is no official position on this style point

In some countries, the governments have taken formal positions on their English names, e.g. “Ukraine”, not “the Ukraine”; “The Gambia”, not “Gambia”. This has not happened in the Netherlands. The Dutch government and Dutch law are silent on this style issue.

It is wrong to leave the article out

Some countries are referred to in English in two separate ways when it comes to the article, with one being the more correct form. This happens to most of the Group 1 countries (e.g. “Gambia” and “the Gambia”), and it also happens to Ivory Coast. This is not the situation for the Netherlands, however.

The Netherlands is always referred to by English speakers as the Netherlands. It is incorrect in English to leave it out in running text.

 I’m going to Netherlands next week.

I’m going to the Netherlands next week.

The article is conventionally part of the country’s name

The country’s name in English conventionally includes the article. English speakers think of the name of the country as including the “the”. The reason for this is historical, but its survival into modern English probably has to do with the strong geographic element in the ending “-lands”. It would be interesting to read a linguistic study as to how this apparently unique convention arose and has survived.

The article is sometimes capitalised and sometimes not

Here is an important point:  no one would ever write “The United Kingdom” or “The United States”, but both “The Netherlands” and “the Netherlands” can look perfectly correct, depending on the situation.

In this sense, the country’s name is treated differently than the names for the United Kingdom or the United States (both Group 3 countries). Disconcertingly, the usage is not the same.

It is not officially “The Netherlands”

Two countries have “The” as an official part of their English names: The Gambia and The Bahamas. This is not the situation for the Netherlands, even though the article is considered to be part of the name.

Why has the article not been formally integrated into the country’s English name? In the end, the answer may just be that that Netherlands is not an English-speaking country, so it has not felt the need to take any formal step with regard to its English name. The Gambia and The Bahamas are English-speaking, so they have done this. It may also be the case that the Dutch don’t feel any particular urge to clarify this point. They call their country just “Nederland“. The Dutch equivalent (“De Nederlanden“) is not used in modern Dutch to refer to the Netherlands.

It is conventionally “the Netherlands” in running text

Everyone agrees that in running text it should be just “the Netherlands”. Small “t”. No one would write this, for example:

Kingdom of The Netherlands

Kingdom of the Netherlands

Example of the conventional style:

The United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have agreed to end support for public financing of new coal-fired power plants abroad.

The EU’s Interinstitutional Style Guide says the following at 7.1.1.:

Use ‘the Netherlands’ …; a capital T is not necessary on ‘the’.

One obvious exception is that the “t” is capitalised when the country’s name starts a sentence.

The Netherlands is one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural and food products.

Different treatment for lists, tables, headings, addresses, etc.

Two different styles are possible when the country’s name stands alone. This happens in lists, tables, headings, addresses and so on. It happens when the country’s name is set in brackets or between commas.

First style: With capitalised article

Often the country’s name is referred to in these situations as “The Netherlands” (with a capital “T”). Here is an example of this usage in an EU context. This style is recommended.

Second style: With no article

Even though the article is considered to be part of the name in English, sometimes the country is referred to simply as “Netherlands” when the name is set apart. This happens sometimes even in a formal context. In lists or headings in EU documents, for example, the country is sometimes referred to simply as “Netherlands”. A list of Member States often refers to just “Netherlands”. This is also done in case names, e.g. Case 13/72 Netherlands v Commission [1973] ECR 27. Another example is the Universal Postal Union advising the use of “NETHERLANDS” in addresses on envelopes.

Addresses

The recommendation is to use “The Netherlands” in addresses in legal correspondence, not “the Netherlands” and not “NETHERLANDS” (despite the UPU’s guidelines). The English mailing address of the Hague Court of Appeal would be:

The Hague Court of Appeal
P.O. Box 20302
2500 EH The Hague
The Netherlands

When the address is written as a single line, it would look like this:

The Hague Court of Appeal, P.O. Box 20302, 2500 EH The Hague, The Netherlands.

Exception: lists or series of country names

In a list or series of countries, it is better style to use “the Netherlands” if the list includes “the United Kingdom”, “the United States” or other country with a “the” name (with a small “t”). For example:

The largest absolute numbers of people born outside the EU were in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands.

If there is no other “the” country in the list, the country’s name could be styled as “the Netherlands” or “The Netherlands”, with the latter being recommended.

Basic recommendations

  1.  Use “the Netherlands” in running text.
  2. Use “The Netherlands” when the name of the country is set apart in some way, including in addresses.

Greg Korbee (April 2015)

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