The Netherlands

Um… surely not. The Dutch don’t make mistakes when referring to their own country, do they? It turns out to be a surprisingly tricky one – not such Elementary Dunglish as you might have thought.

When I posted about the use of data (and media) as a singular despite the grammatical origins being plural, one response by e-mail said that these were exceptional cases of foreign origin and it would never happen in normal English. I pointed out to him that I live in precisely one such case: the Netherlands is a singular noun despite the plural form. And that’s not all that can prove awkward:

  • The Netherlands is a country, a singular entity, and so you use singular verbs, e.g. the Netherlands has a royal family (not have).
  • In running text, there’s no need to capitalize the definite article: I live in the Netherlands, not in The Netherlands.
  • Usage in addresses is a thornier subject.
    • Many people still like to put the article in the final line of the address: Wageningen, The Netherlands. In which case you do need the capital letter. But…
    • My personal opinion, and one that is becoming increasingly widespread, is that there is no need for the article in addresses anyway. It’s just Wageningen, Netherlands. After all, you wouldn’t write “The USA” or “The UK” or “The Philippines” as the last line, would you? (Quite aside from the benefit for IT systems of the alphabetical order being unaffected.)
  • Using Netherlands rather than Dutch as the demonym (the adjective of place) is now common in the names of organizations. It should be accepted there. When I first worked in the country, back in the eighties, our main client was the Koninklijke Luchtmacht, who preferred to be the Royal Netherlands Air Force in English. That usage, rather than Royal Dutch Air Force, sounded very odd then. In normal speech or text, it’s still got to be Dutch, though.

It’s worth noting that countries also tend to drop “the” as time goes by. To my parents’ generation, it was the Gambia and the Lebanon. When the Soviet Union broke up, the Ukraine became independent and soon lost the article. Maybe NL will go the same way!

Prevalence: high. Exacerbated by the fact that many Dutch organizations have their own preferred translations for their names in English, which we’ve then got to stick to.
Frequency: common. These issues crop up more regularly than you’d think.
Native: yes. Using “The” in addresses varies quite a lot among native speakers too, and using “Netherlands” as the demonym remains uncomfortable.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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