A Word, Please: It isn't a downer to lowercase the T in 'the'

If I were to write that the Beatles were a great band, would that give you pause? That is, would you notice anything funny about how I've written the band's name?

Most people, I'm guessing, would not. But close readers might notice something odd — something a reader named Thomas observed in one of my recent columns.

"The singing group's trademarked name is The Beatles (with a capital T). However, your sentence did not capitalize the letter T when you referenced their official group name," Thomas wrote. "What is the grammar rule you used to avoid capitalizing this instance of the word 'the'?"

Interesting choice of words: "the grammar rule you used." In fact, it's not a grammar rule. And the rule that was applied, well, it was never up to me to use it.

Not everything that appears under a writer's byline was the writer's choice. Many matters of punctuation, word choice, capitalization and even grammar are decided by the publication's style rules. And style rules for capitalization often reflect the belief that capital letters in running text should be avoided whenever possible.

There are two reasons. First, too many capital letters in a sentence can be visually jarring, disrupting the flow of a sentence and giving an all-around unprofessional look. Second, the practice of toying with capital letters, which a lot of companies like to do because it gets readers' attention, is disliked by news media for precisely that reason: It's just not appropriate to let companies scream for attention in the pages of a legitimate newspaper through use of excessive or wacky capital letters.

So if you want to name your new product THeVeRyBESTwidGet, that's not how you'll see your name in most news media. Interestingly, though, if you name your product an iPad, you may well see your name capitalized according to your preference. Here's how the Los Angeles Times addresses these matters in its style guide: "The Times follows the company's preference if the internal capitals begin a new syllable: HomeBase, QualMed. But The Times does not permit uppercasing letters that do not start new syllables."

Still, publishers impose their own rules of logics and aesthetics, which is why at the beginning of a sentence, "iPad" may well be written "IPad." A car called "fortwo" by its maker could be "Fortwo" in an article, even mid-sentence.

Of course, if a company goes by initials that are each pronounced individually, all of those can be uppercase: IBM and CBS, for instance.

None of this explains why the name "The Beatles" often gets written as "the Beatles." Obviously, John, Paul, Ringo and George weren't preoccupied with the potential visual impact a capital T could get them. Instead, it's just obvious that, because proper names capitalize the first letter of each word, the T should be up.

But publishers concerned with aesthetics and the visual flow of words can trump this rule in their own pages when they see fit. As an editor who's been lowercasing the T in The for a long time, I can't help but like this rule. Yet there's an irony I should point out. Many publications, the L.A. Times included, make one major exception: themselves. When certain papers use their own nicknames — The Times, The Tribune, The Herald or what have you — they follow a policy of always capitalizing the T in The.

That irony aside: When writing a proper name that begins with "The," it usually makes sense to capitalize the T. But if you want to mimic the look of a published news article and the name appears somewhere other than the beginning of the sentence, you have the option of leaving it lowercase.

June Casagrande is the author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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