A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend from work about Ukraine. Hearing the word “Ukraine” always induced a sense of anxiety that made me hesitant to reference the country at all.
I vividly remember a “worldly” professor at Penn, who referred to the country as “the Ukraine.” I also heard this on major news networks and from numerous politicians. I assumed that this was a stylistic or grammatical issue and deferred to the people I deemed experts.
That’s why I was shocked when this friend — who studies Ukraine among other things — noted that I was actually correct.
“Ukraine is a country,” says William Taylor, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009. “The Ukraine is the way the Russians referred to that part of the country during Soviet times … Now that it is a country, a nation, and a recognized state, it is just Ukraine. And it is incorrect to refer to the Ukraine, even though a lot of people do it.”
In recent years, as the upheaval in Ukraine has escalated, many journalists and U.S. Administration officials and pundits have been guilty of making this mistake. Though such slips are not meant to be slights, they can still rankle people from a nation that became independent in 1991 and is now fighting to maintain stable autonomy as Russian boots step onto their soil. Taylor says that the diaspora, those Ukrainians now abroad and hearing reports about their homeland in English, are particularly sensitive to this definite article. “Whenever they hear the Ukraine, they fume,” Taylor says. “It kind of denies their independence, denies their sovereignty.”
This might seem like the musings of a “politically correct” professor. But Taylor says that the term sends an important message, especially among world leaders, because “the Russians don’t really, in their gut, accept that there’s an independent Ukraine.” He cites Putin sending troops to Crimea as evidence that the Russian leader views the country as a “province” of his own.
For Ukrainians, as speakers of a language that lacks the indefinite article (“a/an” in English) and definite article (“the” in English), it can be tough to know when to use articles — or when not to use one at all.
But there’s one case of article use that Ukrainians never get wrong, while native speakers of English often do: it’s “Ukraine” and not “the Ukraine.”
The erroneous “the Ukraine” can be read in the foreign press, and heard on television and radio. President Donald Trump even made the error during his meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in 2017. And as recently as on July 2, the White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said U.S. sanctions “will remain in place until Russia returns Crimea to the Ukraine.”
In fact, saying “the Ukraine” is more than a grammatical mistake — it is disrespectful toward Ukrainians. This linguistic bad habit has its roots in both politics and history.
In English, countries, with few exceptions, never take an article. Exceptions occur usually when a country is considered to be made up of distinct parts, such as the United States, the Netherlands, or the United Kingdom — they are plural in grammatical form or sense.
Most counties, like Germany, France, Canada, Spain, Russia and China, don’t take an article, as they are grammatically singular.
The definite article is used when referring to a sub-part or region of a country, however. Thus we have the Fens in England, the Algarve in Portugal, and the Highlands in Scotland. The use of the article in this case carries information about the political nature of the area of land that is being talked about.
The use can thus change as political conditions change over time. For instance, the part of South America where the country of Argentina is now located used to be known as “the Argentine,” meaning, “the place (region) where the silver comes from.” After the region became a fully-fledged country, the correct way to refer to that part of the globe became “Argentina.”
For the same reason, it is incorrect to say “the Ukraine.” Ukraine is no longer a part of another country or empire. After many hard battles, it has become an independent, unitary state.
The Russian war against Ukraine, which started with the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, made the issue of the “the Ukraine” grammatical error particularly sensitive.
“The Ukrainian people were denied their unalienable right to statehood for centuries and ‘the Ukraine’ was used as a name for a region of the empires that subjugated Ukraine,” Paul Grod, the president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and vice-president of the Ukrainian World Congress, told the Kyiv Post.
“In the case of Ukraine, a unitary state, using ‘the’ is inappropriate and incorrect. The continued use of the definite article in front of the name of an independent state — Ukraine — is therefore an indirect (although often unintentional) denial of statehood,” Grod said.
The English usage of the definite article in relation to Ukraine occurred mainly because of the country’s history as a part of the Russian Empire, and then as part of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union.
Ukraine in Russian Language
This use of language by Russia to diminish Ukrainian statehood continued after Ukraine gained independence, and in the Russian language as well — specifically in the use of the Russian prepositions “na” (on) and “v” (in).
During the Soviet era, Russians used the construction “na Ukraine,” roughly translated as “in the Ukraine.” Although it was generally accepted as a norm, this wasn’t technically correct even at that time. Ukraine was the only republic in the Soviet Union that this preposition was used with.
One reason why the Russian preposition that means “in the” might have stuck to Ukraine lies in the etymology of the word “Ukraine,” which is believed by many scholars to come from the Old Slavic word “okraina,” which means “the borderland.” This translation often prompted the use of the article.
After independence in 1991, Ukraine asked Russia to stop referring to it as “na Ukraine” and instead switch to “v Ukraine,” which means “in Ukraine” as opposed to “in the Ukraine.” Russian officials and media — even the liberal ones — nevertheless continue to use the “na Ukraine” construction.
Grod believes that the best way to deal with those who say and write “the Ukraine” is “to correct them and explain why it is both inappropriate and disrespectful to Ukrainians and Ukraine.”
Old bad habits might be tough to break, but since Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union, usage of the article has declined steadily. The Ukrainian government has also expressed their preference for dropping it.
The Associated Press style guides and the UK newspaper the Guardian clearly state that the definite article should not be included when referencing Ukraine.
The issue of whether to place “the” in front of “Ukraine” may appear to be an obscure grammatical point, but it actually carries a lot of meaning, connected to the long and painful history of Ukraine’s struggle for independence.