Eva van Emden, Freelance Editor

Certified Copy Editor and Proofreader

eva@vancouvereditor.com

October 2, 2013

When to capitalize “the”

I find capitalization one of the trickier areas of copy editing. As you try to be consistent, it’s easy to slide down a slippery slope of increasing capitalization until your document looks like the product of a Victorian letter writer.

One question that causes a lot of problems is the question of capitalizing the definite article with proper nouns. Should you write “he went to The University of British Columbia” or “to the University of British Columbia”? Is the article part of their name? Look, it’s capitalized right on their website. No, wait, maybe it isn’t.

Fear not: the style guides have spoken, and their message is clear. The Canadian Press Stylebook, 16th ed., has a useful entry on page 287, and The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., also deals with this topic.

Titles of works starting with “the”

In general, include the article and capitalize it:
The Taming of the Shrew
“The Lottery”

For periodicals, Chicago suggests lowercasing the article and not italicizing it, even if it is part of the official title: the New Yorker.

Canadian Press style capitalizes “the” when it is part of the name: The New Yorker (no italics because this is a newspaper style), but it uses a lowercase article for names of almanacs, the Bible, dictionaries, directories, handbooks, and so on.

Sometimes you can drop a leading “a” “an” or ”the” in a book title if it doesn’t fit the syntax of the sentence (CMOS 167):
Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew

“The” before a proper noun

The article is almost always lowercased:
the Supreme Court
the Panama Canal
the Constitution
the Beatles
the University of British Columbia

Some specific types of proper nouns

  • Places

    Lowercase the article except in a city name that contains “the” (CMOS 8.44):
    the Netherlands
    The Hague
  • Institutions and companies

    Chicago says that a “the” preceding the name, even if it’s part of the official name, is lowercased in running text (CMOS 8.67).
    the University of Chicago
  • Associations and unions

    Same again: lowercase “the” even if it’s part of the official name (CMOS 8.69).
    the League of Women Voters

Changes in capitalization styles

These are recommendations from two specific style guides. Organizations have their own house styles for capitalization that may deviate from the guidelines I’ve quoted here, and that doesn’t mean they are incorrect. Because there’s a general trend towards less capitalization, you may find that the rules that people learned in school a few decades ago are quite different from what is recommended in the newer style guides.

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