Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with a passion. Learn More

North or northern

Hi all!

It’s a wonderful blog. Congratulations!

I’m in this predicament:

What is the rule for using north/south/east/west and northern/southern/eastern/western with geographical names?

For example, why is it called “Eastern Europe” instead of “East Europe” and “North America” instead of “Northern America”. In this regard, which collocation is more acceptible - “Southern France” or “South France”. Why? What’s the rule?


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It looks like this is no rule, unless euphony is a factor.

wayneleman May-26-2005

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I'm not sure about any rules, but I'm pretty sure that "Southern France" is acceptable.

Sean2 May-27-2005

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Or "The south of France"

IngisKahn1 May-27-2005

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I believe that it reflects the way the native speakers organize reality. Southern France, not South France, because we think of France as the unit of reference. Ditto Eastern Europe, not East Europe.

We don't think of North, Central and South America as a unit--we think of them as "the Americas".

In the US we have lots of groups of towns with names like North Hampton, East Hampton, South Hampton, etc. When we want to refer to them jointly we say "the Hamptons", not "Hampton". But the best-known Hamptons in the US are in Eastern Long Island, because they occupy only a part of geographical entity called Long Island.

We wouldn't call Southern France, northen France, eastern France "the Frances"--when we want to refer to the totality, we say "France".

So southern X means the part of X that lies to the south, whereas South X means an X that is to the south of the other X's.


Gary1 May-27-2005

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I wouldn't agree with that. A few entries in a search engine will show you that they are pretty much interchangeable. East Europe or Eastern Europe are both correct. As for North America -- that's the name of a continent.

Generally one form is used more often than the other. e.g. South Texas is much more popular than Southern Texas and the opposite is true form East/Eastern Pennsylvania.

IngisKahn1 May-29-2005

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I agree, and it always tends to be the South OF France. Which is strange.

Amy_ May-31-2005

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"South of France" is commonly used.

Eric_from_Australia Jun-01-2005

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well the official name of my state is Western Australia, however for a person from there can be either Western Australian or West Australian. go figure! so i don't reckon there's a set rule for everything, like anything else in English!

west_aussie Jun-15-2005

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I'm pretty sure American English doesn't work the same way. People here might be called "Westerners" or even possibly "Easterners" but never "West Americans", and to my ear at least that sounds pretty strange. People from the Eastern US live on the East Coast and people from North Dakota are from the Northern part of the country. I feel like Gary hit the nail on the head with this one.

Joachim1 Jun-24-2005

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Not sure what you're saying. There tends to be a correct or preferred way to say things, but there is no set rule.

IngisKahn1 Jun-24-2005

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I'd defer to the cartographers here. I am sure that they know what rules apply when making maps. But if I might opine, I believe that there could be an underlying rule or rules here, beneath a fairly thick layer of usage and convention variability.

I think the underlying rules that Gary describes are accurate. I would describe it this way: When initially referring to an area's direction, we consider the unit of reference.

We have to consider, at least initially when naming or referring to a new area, whether that area should be referenced by a landmark. Inside case - If the new area is inside that landmark, then we can generically refer to direction - the south of France, the southern portion or area of France. We wouldn't say South France unless that became some unit of reference itself, like a political unit, or if there was some topographical feature to divide it, like a mtn range or river. If it was a political unit, like a county or province, it would almost certainly be "South France." If a geographical unit, divided by a river or mountains, it could also be called Southern France, probably until that division became incorporated into the political jurisdictions, when it would then most likely become South France. And note the capitalization. Initially we would call it "the southe of France." Then as the area becomes more distinct in our thought, we start writing "the South of France." Outside case - If we name an area by referring to a landmark outside that area, we will generally say East Chicago. In this example, we can imagine that EC is a city to the east of Chgo. With no capitalization, east Chicago would in contrast be a part of Chicago itself, obviously an area of the city on the east side. Again tho, if that part of the city became a political unit, it would become East Chicago.

To me, saying Eastern Chicago would be implying that Chicago was some large area and would therefore never be used. Likewise "the south of Chicago" implies a vastness. We say "the Southern Rockies" because the area is vast. So we say Eastern Europe, because over time we have come to view this large area as distinct. Probably when we first started referring to this area, we said eastern Europe. But I have nothing to back that up.

The name "northern America" doesn't make sense because it isn't a geographical unit. As a political unit, "the North" or "the northern States" is used.

Speaking to the Aussie example, a Western Australian should be a person from that province, Western Australia. Altho, since there is always history to consider, this might be more of a recent development. Previous to the political distinction, someone from that area could have been called a West Australian or a Western Australian. There can be no confusion, in the case of a land surrounded by water, of being from an area west of Australia.

John4 Jun-25-2005

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John, Ingis,

I pretty much concur with everything John said. I personally feel that there is an underlying mechanism in this case that determines which phrase makes more sense and I think Gary discovered it and expressed it clearly. As for East Chicago, google claims that no such place exists (I thought it did but perhaps I was thinking of New Chicago, IN), but North Chicago does exist and is a separate political entity, exactly as John predicted.

Joachim1 Jun-27-2005

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So you're saying that anyone who uses South Texas, North Jersey, or East Europe is just plain wrong? lol

IngisKahn1 Jun-27-2005

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Google doesn't "claim" anything. Google merely reports what is out there on the internet. There are no value judgements in what it does; to use the jargon of linguistics, it is descriptive, not prescriptive.

Not_Saussure Jun-28-2005

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Sure there is an East Chicago. The locals just call it Gary, Indiana:) I was just making up a hypothetical there, so I am glad that Google didn't find anything. I disagree that Google can't claim something. They have a mapping function which certainly does make geographical claims. But I understand the comment that "googling" would result in what is "out there." But with its stock going thru the roof, they are bound to branch out.

To respond to Ingas, for what it is worth, I myself would accept South Texas and North Jersey. These names, regardless of what rules we tried to describe, have an informal appeal. But East Europe sounds a bit odd to my ear. But thinking of examples, if one were to report on differences between west and east portions of Europe, it would sound ok to say "East Europe wants more members in the EU, but West Europe is holding the line." But here, we are anthropomorphizing and getting away from geography.

John4 Aug-09-2005

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Texas is divided into informal regions: North Texas, East Texas, South Texas, West Texas. It and a couple other states might be exceptions, but what about cities? Everyone in the area knows what north Dallas is, yet it's also a part of Dallas.

So I disagree with Gary, at least in part.

North US could never be used because it's *the* US, likewise with something like the Rockies. However, there's a North Pacific and South Pacific, but we also just say "The Pacific".

I don't think "East Europe" sounds right any way you use it.

The only rule I see is, northern, southern, etc. can be used to refer to whatever looks to you like the northern part, southern part, etc, while North, South, etc. always refer to something more specific and agreed-upon, usually with set boundaries. The exception is where the terms Northern, Southern, etc are used instead for the specific parts, like Europe.

As far as search engines go, there's a LOT of bad grammar on the web. Try looking up a word misspelled and you get plenty of definitions.

gandalf Dec-14-2005

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I think John's more or less right.

IngisKahn, I don't know about North Texas or East Jersey but East Europe IS wrong; it's like Mid-East, a weird recent US variant that might catch on but isn't considered correct - or wasn't last time I checked. I'm guessing the other two examples are slang, although I might be wrong.

dt Aug-17-2010

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Um, so, obviously it's Eastern Europe and the Middle-East... And, as John predicted/explained, it used to be eastern Europe but the Cold War created a more accepted region in which, say, no one would include Greece or Turkey.

Hey, as a European Federalist I'd love for East Europe to come about but we've a while to go til then.

dt Aug-17-2010

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And Southern France is acceptable: it means the southern portion of France, say from the Massif Central southwards. The South of France is now used to refer to the Mediterranean coast and its hinterland.

dt Aug-17-2010

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Gary seems to have layed out the logic very simply and clearly. It even makes sense from a grammatical standpoint. "Northern" is an attributive adjective, while "north", used as an adjective, is a noun modifier. Noun modifiers identify a particular type of thing but don't necessarily describe the thing's atrributes (tasty food is food that is tasty, but cat food isn't food that's cat-like).

Words like "northern" can be used both non-restrictively and restrictively. I could say that "North Dakota is the northern Dakota of the two Dakotas", but northern New York is clearly the northern part of a single New York. The northern hemisphere is the northernmost of the two hemispheres. However, "northern" is still being used as an attributive adjective in all these cases. The northern hemisphere is a type of hemisphere, but is it really the name of a place?

Whether a particular country or place follows this logic is beside the point. Names of places are proper nouns. As such, they don't necessarily follow grammatical rules. If the citizens of a country decide to name it a particular name, then that's what the name is regardless of any rule of thumb.

porsche Aug-17-2010

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I note in the discussions above the capitalization of letters seems interchangeable:
northern Northern, north North, western Western etc. I guess its the old adjective or noun question, but anyone know what the right convention is?

steve.harding Sep-08-2010

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Hmmm...I'm thinking that popular usage of north vs. northern or east vs eastern comes down to rhythm. I have often thought that English when spoken by a native speaker has a rhythm (I cannot speak to other languages). Sometimes a word just ”sounds right”. Try saying “eastern Europe” vs. ”east Europe” –one phrase feels “right” and the other not. On the other hand North America and northern America both sound right – in this case it is just a matter of common practise.

Nobody has ever accused English of being a logical language!

shaunc Sep-09-2010

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There is actually a rule that mostly missed. northern is in reference to an area and North would be in reference to a direction. South Texas is used as an example, but the correct usage would be southern Texas since it is an area of Texas.

Tarheel Sep-03-2011

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lumpers vs. splitters will forever quibble.

chuckgeorge Aug-25-2015

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Occasionally it gets political, for example, Northern Ireland. Traditional loyalists prefer to call it Ulster, while many in the South (and republicans in the North) call it the Six Counties or the North of Ireland (as they consider it the northern part of what should be one Ireland), and those of us in Britain who prefer to remain neutral call it Northern Ireland, which seems to be accepted by everybody. Geographical names can be symbolically important.

Sometimes I think it just depends on context and tradition. I imagine somebody from Newcastle will say they're from the North of England, rather than from Northern England, while at the same time calling themselves a northerner. But a weather forecaster might well use either.

Warsaw Will Aug-27-2015

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