We’ve been friendly for a long time, through thick and thin: from little phrases like the one I’m writing now to showstoppers like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Lately, though, I’ve noticed that you’re getting kind of pretentious. I see you turning up all over the place with an initial capital in sentences like:
At The Ohio State University, The Beatles gave a great concert, reports The New York Times.
So what’s going on, pal? In the old days, we had a nice, simple agreement—and I’m quoting here from our mutual ally, The Chicago Manual of Style, 13th edition, section 7.57, fn 15—”The word the at the beginning of [institutional and corporate] titles is capitalized only when the official corporate name of the institution is called for,” as when the name follows the copyright symbol. Similarly (7.131), “when newpapers and periodicals are mentioned in the text, an initial The … is set in roman type and, unless it begins a sentence, is lowercased.” And a lot of other style guides agree: The only time that the ordinarily gets capitalized at the beginning of a name or a title is when an artwork or book is in question: The Old Curiosity Shop. There are a few odd exceptions like The Hague, and some artists would like us to make an exception for band names, too, but I don’t see any reason to treat bands differently from newspapers, corporations, or symphony orchestras. Ask yourself: do you really want to spend brain juice trying to remember—or waste time looking up—whether it’s The Cure and the Rolling Stones or the Cure and The Rolling Stones?
The general rule is easy to remember and easy to understand: Except at the beginning of a sentence or the title of an artwork, don’t capitalize the. When in doubt, don’t capitalize the. When you suspect that a capitalized The is part of a larger pattern of public relations hyperbole and relentless self-promotion, don’t capitalize the.
Basically: the definite article is informationally undistinguished, so treat it accordingly.
Please understand that I’m not hating on you, my old friend, but rather on those who are trying to twist you into something you were never intended to be, a major player in the information hierarchy. All you do when you inflate yourself is annoy the living daylights out of people like me. It’s not just that we mock the silly appearance of sentences like the example I gave above, it’s that we fear it portends a future that looks like this:
She Told Us That She Reads The New York Times and Wants to Get Everyone Else on Board.
Because if the gets promoted to The in all those uses, then the next thing you know, ordinary nouns, pronouns, and verbs are going to want a bump, too, and then adjectives and adverbs will demand their fair share, and then the longer prepositions will go out on strike, and before you know it we’ll find ourselves Back in the 17th Century When It Comes to Capitalization.
I mean, really, who opened the door on this?
I find myself wondering whether all this Theification is partly a defensive reaction against another style that has been gaining ground in recent years: sentence case, or the habit of capitalizing only the first word in a title. In this approach, for example, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly becomes The good, the bad, and the ugly. Now, in one way sentence case gives you an advantage, my friend, because The is a common titular first word, so you would often find yourself the sole word sporting a capital letter in any given title. On the other hand, as far as I can tell it’s not being applied to names; I’m not seeing sentences beginning “Today the new york times reported…” I don’t love sentence case myself—though I do think it’s preferable to junking up titles with The this and The that—and at the moment it doesn’t look like it’s going to become the primary capitalization style for absolutely everything. Meanwhile, as possibly the last holdout for lower-casing the as a general principle—well, all I can say is that I’m contemplating taking a hint from Russia and boycotting the definite article. After all, if I don’t use it, I can’t be pressured to capitalize it.
Truly, I prefer meaning shift resulting from lost definite article to ridiculous spread of over-capitalization under thin facade of accuracy. Da!
Please don’t hold it against me if it turns out we just can’t see each other as much in future.