English Grammar Study: Using “The” With Nouns of Place

In two previous posts, I looked at the rules for using “the” with proper nouns—nouns that are capitalized and are the names of places. In this post, I’m going to show you some more rules for “the” that can apply to both proper nouns and common nouns that are not capitalized and don’t name specific places. (Examples of common nouns of place include words like school, hospital, mountain, building, etc…)


Place names that used to have more than one word

The general rule for “the” and proper nouns of location is as follows:

  • Use the word “the” before the name of a place if:
    • The place name has two or more words
    • One of the words in a place name is a common noun

So for instance, “states,” “river,” and “ocean” are all common nouns. So you would say the United States, the Nile River, and the Indian Ocean.

Now, there are some one-word names of places that appear to break that rule. This includes cities like the Hague and countries like the Netherlands (the country the Hague is in). It also includes places like the Bronx (a neighborhood in New York City), the Matterhorn (a mountain in Switzerland), and the Bahamas (a Caribbean nation).

With these kinds of exceptions, the place name originally had more than one word, but “lost” that word, as language use changed. Hundreds of years ago, the Hague was called “the Count’s Hedge,” a three-word name. And the Netherlands means “the Low Lands” (two words in the name) in Dutch. The Matterhorn means “the Meadow’s Horn” in German. The Bronx is shortened from “the Bronx River,” a river that runs through the Bronx neighborhood. And the Bahamas is short for “the Bahama Islands.”


“The” and “of”

Some nouns of location have the word “of” in them. Proper nouns with “of” in them will always be preceded by “the.” It’s a simple rule you can always count on. The University of California, the Bay of Pigs, and the Port of New Orleans are just a few of the many proper nouns that follow this rule. The rule applies to common nouns too, such as the master bedroom of the house, the front of the building, and so on.


“The” and nouns of location in prepositional phrases

There are some special rules for using “the” before a noun of location, if the location noun is inside a prepositional phrase. Read the sentences below and see if you can guess the rules.

  • I just came from the bank.
  • We went to school.
  • The children are at the park.
  • They put the criminal in jail.
  • The car is parked on the street.
  • It takes an hour to drive to work.

You probably noticed that (1), (3) and (5) have “the” before their nouns of location (bank, park, street), while the locations in (2),(4), and (6) lack “the.” This is because the words “school,” “jail,” and “work” are special. Most locations inside prepositional phrases must include “the.” But “school,” “jail,” and “work,” are exceptions to these rules. Other words with similar meanings to these also do not need to have “the” (examples: high school, college, prison, training, etc…). In British English, “hospital” can lack “the” in prepositional phrases too.

And there is still one more common noun of location that acts very differently in prepositional phrases: “home.” Like school, jail, and work, home doesn’t need to have “the”. But “home” is even more unique than those other words. Why? I’ll cover that soon in a future post. Watch this space!

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  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!