Monday, 24 February 2014

We need to talk about ‘the’

(Prompted by a Facebook post by Anne Berkeley: Ukraine / The Ukraine, etc.)

Two days a week I have a job in which I spend an unexpected amount of time reading essays by Chinese students for whom ‘the’ and ‘a’, these skimpy little things, appear to be optional extras, and usually they choose not. There are some grammatical rules; I try to explain them; they seem a bit wavery, as rules do when you try to spell them out.

Short digression here on book covers for books with titles like The Goldfinch, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Glass House, etc. Often the designers seem a little embarrassed by the ‘The’: they drag down the type-size, they de-bold it, they slip it in sideways. (One of the first CBe books was titled The White Room; I was dithering about the typography on the cover; I asked my go-to designer man and he told me bluntly that the ‘The’ is just as much a part of the title as the other words, and he was right.)

Back to close-focus nitty-gritty. Book covers often quote from reviews from The Times, The Economist, etc. There was once a copy-editor’s rule that those were the only two periodicals to have The thus, italic and upper-case T. I can guess in outline the cv of the man (I presume) who legislated. The current Oxford Hart’s Rules (subtitled ‘The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors’) loosens up a bit: ‘It is a common convention in referring to periodicals to include an initial capitalized and italicized The in titles which consist only of the definite article and one other word, but to exclude the definite article definitive article from longer titles.’ Examples given: The Economist, the New Yorker. For the latter, I’d disagree: The New Yorker. Which is how they have it on their website (though that’s hardly the deciding factor; the Guardian and the Spectator also both include ‘The’, though tucking it back or fading it; the Paris Review has it small and italic). The first book I pull down from my shelves has four quotes on the back cover: Spectator, Evening Standard, The Times, Daily Telegraph. I suspect that copy went through an old-school copy-editor; and copy-editors are, often, of an older generation than authors, and therefore working to older habits.

All pedantic, I know, and I’m more than happy to settle for consistency as opposed to correctness. Which doesn’t help the Chinese. We could go and discuss this in the The Eagle, or the Eagle, or the Red Lion.

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