Monday, June 25, 2012

Writing 101: When Do You Capitalize The?

Proper capitalization is something that I struggle with every single day. Words like with and it are endlessly confusing when it comes to writing titles correctly, but more than any word the one that gives me the most pain is the. Is it a title? What if it's not? Suppose I need to mention the White House in the middle of  a sentence, and not at the beginning? Just when the heck are you supposed to be using a capital The, and when aren't you? 

How Do I Hate The? Let Me Count The Ways...

Without a doubt, the is my least favorite article. Since there are only two articles in all of English (a and the), I realize this isn't saying much -- but the depth of my hatred supersedes the general lack of choices. The is a problem for me personally because I can never seem to figure out just how to treat it when it comes to capitalization.

And frankly, neither does anybody else. The is treated all kinds of ways by all kinds of writers, and in looking for information about capitalizing the it's much easier to find condescending advice than something remotely useful (tons of grammarians, for reasons unknown, feel like it's necessary to explain in great detail that the first letter of any sentence should be capitalized).

After absorbing a mind-boggling number of capitalization rules, I still hate the. But at least now I know how to treat it -- and you can, too. 

The Rules

The is neither preposition nor verb, adjective nor noun, and that's why it's so hard to deal with. The rules of capitalization say that prepositions should never be capitalized, but that doesn't mean you should treat the like a preposition because it is not. Short verbs like are, be and is are also supposed to be capitalized when they belong to titles and proper names (example: the song Flowers Are Pretty should always be written thus). But again, the isn't a verb. 

But the isn't just any other word, either, and that's where the confusion comes in. It's an article, and it plays by is own rules. 
  • Proper nouns. In proper nouns, such as exact place names (the Alamo, for example), the first letter of each word is supposed to be capitalized -- unless there's a the involved. It's an exception, and it's one that a massive number of people get wrong. Unless it starts the sentence, the should not be capitalized in proper nouns (so don't do it). 
  • Titles. In titles, every first letter of every word should be capitalized -- excluding your prepositions and your articles, of course. In the book For Whom the Bell Tolls, the stays small. However, if the is the first word in a title, it must be capitalized whether or not it starts a sentence. For example, I have to write The Catcher in the Rye with both big and little the, because the first starts off the proper title of the book and the second appears in the middle.
And One More Confusing Thing...

 I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I've broken my own rules with the title above, When Do You Capitalize The? But you're wrong. It's one of those quirky rules of capitalization that I saved for the end, because that's where it belongs. In any and all titles, the last word must also be capitalized. Why is that a rule? I don't know; I don't make them up. Whether it's a preposition or a the, if it's the last word (or the first word) of a title, you've got to capitalize. So, when do you capitalize the? At the beginning of a title and at the end, but never any other time, and certainly not inside proper nouns. 

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  1. One of the problems we face as writers these days is that there is no authority, or rather, too many authorities. As an Englishman, writing in Australia, mostly for American readers, I have a very wide choice of who to listen to on the subject. The popular style guides are almost all American (which is handy when writing for American markets and Australians don't really care how things are written) or they are British and often seem well out of touch with English as it is now written in the Sceptred Isle.

    I can't fall back on my education because that is growing old and grammar has changed so much since my school days. For example, your rule about not capitalising "the" in proper nouns is the exact opposite of what I was taught.

    As a result, I no longer argue with editors about the rules of grammar. Most of them are more-or-less ignorant of what they are (or that their preference is merely a choice of one among many "schools"). If a particular style of punctuation is their "house style", then so be it. By choosing to be published by anyone but myself, I am also choosing to submit to the tyranny of an editor's grammatical whimsies. And why not let them have their way. Editing is a dull and often thankless job and should have some small triumphs to lift the practitioner's spirit.

  2. These are all great points. I once got into a heated debate with an editor over use of the word "for ever" vs. "forever." Flexibility on the rules of writing is something everyone has to have. At the end of the day, the readers are really the ones who dictate what's acceptable and what's not.