Q: I’m confused about when to capitalize the definite article in titles. I see it all sorts of ways in all sorts of publications. Help!
A: No matter where “the” appears in a sentence, it should be capitalized at the beginning of the title of a work (book, play, movie, opera, and so on) if it’s part of the title.
Examples: “I lent him my copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” … “His favorite painting is The Last Supper” … “She consulted The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.”
But if “the” is not part of the title, it’s lowercase: “We get much of our information from the Oxford English Dictionary.”
Names of newspapers and periodicals often have “the” as part of their titles, but capitalization styles vary.
The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) recommends lowercasing “the” before the name of a newspaper or magazine, even if that publication has “The” as an official part of its name.
Example: “I read both the New York Times and the New Yorker.” (The Chicago Manual also uses italics for the names of newspapers and periodicals, though we don’t on our blog.)
Some book publishers do uppercase “the” if the periodical itself does so. Example: “He reads neither The New York Times nor The New Yorker.”
We wouldn’t capitalize “the” in mid-sentence when it’s part of the name of a school or department at a university, even though academics like to do so (as in, “He’s chairman of The English Department”).
The capital “t” is unnecessary in the example above and, if you ask us, it’s sheer puffery. We’d also like to see “department” lowercased, but that’s probably too much to ask!
We’ve written before about the tendency of academics and bureaucrats to overuse capital letters (as in “the Company” or even “The Company”).
Check out our books about the English language