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I have heard several countries expressed in Spanish with a definite article before the country name (e.g. los Estados Unidos, la Argentina, la India). Is there a rule for when this occurs and when it doesn't? Is the definite article optional, or are there certain countries for which it is required? If both forms are used, which is more common?

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I am from Argentina and I never say or hear "el Chile", but "la Argentina" is quite accepted and used. The standard explanation of this apparent anomality is that "Argentina" is originally an adjective, tied to the (often tacit) substantive "República", so that the full expression would be "la República Argentina" (analogously to "los Estados Unidos"). Hence, the right thing is to use the article "la", also when the substantive "república" is omitted. (Reference: I must admit that this explanation sounds a little artificial to me.

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As I know, usually you use the article for your own country but not for other countries. I'm peruvian, so I say "el Perú" but we never say "la Argentina". – Ricardo Jan 13 '12 at 1:23

The names of some places, such as "El Salvador", "El Cairo" or "La Haya" always include the article (just as "The Hague" does in English). For some others you can optionally add the article, the RAE lists several examples in the page about the definite article "el".

(el) Afganistán, (el) África, (la) Argentina, (el) Asia, (el) Brasil, (el) Camerún, (el) Canadá, (el) Chad, (la) China, (el) Congo, (el) Ecuador, (los) Estados Unidos, (la) India, (el) Líbano, (el) Pakistán, (el) Paraguay, (el) Perú, (el) Senegal, (el) Uruguay, (el) Yemen, etc

In any case, whenever the article is optional the most common form omits it (and in fact most of these examples sound terrible to my ears, even though they are occasionally heard).

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los Estados Unidos is most common though, as an exception. I would also say el Reino Unido. – Kevin K. Nov 30 '11 at 5:12
I agree about "el Reino Unido", but I still think "Me voy a Estados Unidos" would be more common than "Me voy a los Estados Unidos" (although it wouldn't sound unusual either). – david Nov 30 '11 at 10:43
Interesting. I wonder if it's regional. I've never heard Estados Unidos like that, but I'm only one person. – Kevin K. Nov 30 '11 at 10:47
I don't believe I've ever heard "los Estados Unidos" without the article... – Flimzy Dec 3 '11 at 0:35
In Spain the article is seldom used. See e.g the news about the USA in "El Pais" (one of the main Spanish national newspapers): Incidentally, the same is true about "Reino Unido": – david Dec 3 '11 at 3:23

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