When to Capitalize an Initial “The”

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Spotlight on Initial “The”

A “the” at the beginning of a word or phrase that would normally be capitalized—including the name of an organization or the title of a work—presents a dilemma. When is the “the” capitalized? In Chicago style, the answer comes down to a few rules that can help you decide in each case.

First, consider whether italics or quotation marks are involved. Then consider the type of term.

Is It the Name of an Organization or Place?

Except at the beginning of a sentence or heading, an initial “the” gets a lowercase t in almost any proper noun that wouldn’t normally be italicized or placed in quotation marks. This includes the names of universities and other institutions as well as the names of musical groups, place-names, and the like (as covered in chapter 8):

students at the University of Chicago

precedents set by the Supreme Court

the music of the Grateful Dead

agriculture in the Netherlands

the topography of the Rocky Mountains

stars in the Milky Way galaxy

but

the Dutch city known as The Hague (a rare exception; see CMOS 8.45)

or, at the beginning of a sentence,

The Netherlands is also known as Holland.

Many such names (e.g., Harvard University, Chicago, and Holland) don’t include a “the,” in which case there’s nothing to decide. And some organizations (notably, the Ohio State University) insist on a capitalized “The” in their own materials, but Chicago disregards such outliers for the sake of consistency with other such names.

Is It the Title of a Book or Story?

When a capitalized word or phrase is either italicized or placed in quotation marks—as is the case with the titles of books, stories, articles, blog posts, movies, plays, TV episodes, and other works (see CMOS 8.163)—an initial “the” is usually capitalized (but see next section).

Note, however, that the “the” must be part of the title (something that can usually be determined by looking at the source):

recommendations in The Chicago Manual of Style

the author of The Invisible Man (Wells)

allegory in “The Tell-Tale Heart” (Poe)

When “the” isn’t part of the title—and unless it would normally be omitted altogether (as in the first example below)—it precedes the italics or quotation marks and is lowercased except at the beginning of a sentence:

readers of Invisible Man (Ellison)

etymologies in the Oxford English Dictionary (or the OED)

or, at the beginning of a sentence,

The Oxford English Dictionary has been available online for more than twenty years.

In some cases, a “the” that would be capitalized as part of a title doesn’t fit with the grammar of the surrounding text and is therefore omitted (see CMOS 8.169):

a Chicago Manual of Style recommendation

Is It the Name of a Periodical?

Chicago treats the names of newspapers, magazines, and journals as a special case. For most such names, an initial “the” is considered part of the surrounding text (or, in the case of source citations, dropped altogether), even if it appears on the publication’s masthead or cover:

an article in the New York Times

a review in the New Yorker

research in the Journal of Modern History

or, at the beginning of a sentence,

The New York Times has been published continuously since 1851.

This is a traditional style that’s especially suited to academic works that might cite or mention a lot of newspapers. Like CMOS itself, it traces its origins to an earlier era, when names like Times, Herald, Post, Telegraph, Post-Telegraph, and the like were everywhere.

This usage naturally carried over to magazine and journal names that, like the New Yorker and the Journal of Modern History, are grammatically analogous to the names of newspapers.

But the trend these days seems to be toward capitalizing the “the” if the publication itself does so (information that’s easier to find now than it was only a few decades ago). And CMOS 8.170 does sanction such usage for one-word names like The Onion, which read more clearly as titles when the “the” is included. But for most periodical names, Chicago continues to prefer its traditional style.

Is It a Creative Exception?

There’s always room for creative exceptions. For stage names that begin with a definite article, the decision may depend on observed usage and, if it can be determined, the preference of the bearer. If in doubt, and a capital T seems like a good fit, go for it—especially for names that otherwise consist of a single word.

For example, you might decide to refer to the Big Bopper (J. P. Richardson) with a lowercase t while making an exception for The Weeknd.

And in fiction and other creative genres, emphasis might be a factor. Sending your protagonist to a restaurant called The Last Meal seems somehow more ominous with that capital T.

Takeaway

In most cases, a “the” at the beginning of a proper noun can be lowercased unless it’s part of a title that’s in quotation marks or italics. The names of periodicals, however, though italicized in Chicago style, usually get a lowercase “the” (no italics). And exceptions can always be made for special cases.


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