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Time, I think, for a spot of pedantry. There is a usage I keep seeing everywhere that drives me round the bend: ‘Yesterday, artist John Smith announced that his new show…’; ‘American author Truman Capote…’

I suspect the practice of omitting the definite article started with headlines where, given the font size and column width, every letter counts. Fair enough, but since then it has trickled down the page to infect the body copy, and has even spread, sadly, to otherwise well-written and edited books.

Unlike Russian or, I am informed, Mandarin, the English language requires an article: you have to write ‘John Smith, an artist…’ ‘The American author Truman Capote…’ Artist and author are not titles, as in King George V or Baron Corvo – they are descriptions of a person’s trade.

This is not just a matter of grammatical rules, but of craftmanship: it’s the difference between a well-carpentered joint and one that’s crudely nailed together. Also, it fails the speech test – would you ever say, ‘artist John Smith’ out loud? No, you wouldn’t.
 Worst of all, it’s simply ugly, betraying a tin ear for the language.

When I worked at the Independent, the usage was strictly banned, and the Guardian style guide agrees:

‘Leaving “the” out often reads like official jargon… Do not use constructions such as “prime minister David Cameron said” … If it is thought necessary to explain who someone is, write “Nigel Adkins, the Sheffield United manager, said” or “the Sheffield United manager, Nigel Adkins, said”.’

Capital offences

Then there is the question of when to capitalize the word. When the definite article is part of a title, it is perfectly clear that it should be capitalized and set in italics: The Divine Comedy, The Portrait of a Lady, etc. The titles of newspapers are more problematic. Traditionally, only The Times was afforded a capitalised, italic The, in recognition of its status as the newspaper of record. At the Independent, we made the decision on the basis of whether the article appeared in the paper’s masthead: so, The Guardian, but the Daily Mail. The drawback to this system is that it requires checking – and newspapers do change their mastheads from time to time.

The Guardian itself says: ‘lc for newspapers (the Guardian), magazines (the New Statesman…’

The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Odwe to those of us in the trade) finds an elegant way round this dilemma: ‘Preceding definite article to be roman and lower case exc. in one-word titles (the New York Review of Books, The Economist)’.

So The Times keeps its capital T, but so do The Guardian and The Independent. That seems like a sensible solution, but I’m entirely in agreement with the Guardian style guide when it continues, ‘lc for… pubs (the Coach and Horses), bands (the Black Eyed Peas, the Not Sensibles, the The), nicknames (the Hulk, the Red Baron), and sports grounds (the Oval).’

To write, ‘We went for a pint in The Dog and Duck’ or ‘He used to get off his face listening to The Smashing Pumpkins’ is a capital letter too far. It’s naff. It’s as uncool as wearing socks with sandals.

Capitalisation in general seems to be getting out of hand. In the 18th century, capitals were scattered merrily to emphasise any word the writer or printer considered important. The Germans, true to stereotype, systematically capitalise every noun. But in modern English we use capitals very sparingly, for proper names and little else. And for goodness’ sake, don’t use them to big up your job title. The Daily Telegraph’s style book is clear about this: ‘Job descriptions such as managing director, chairman and chief executive all take lower case.’

If ‘prime minister’, ‘foreign secretary’ or ‘chief executive’ sit comfortably in lower case, then a capped-up ‘Assistant Stationery Buyer’ looks comically self-important. When it comes to capital letters, less really is more.

While I’m wearing my sub-editor’s (metaphorical) green eye shade, I’m also going to protest against a couple of pretentious buzzwords that seem to be cropping up everywhere: curate and iteration. The word curate belongs to the world of museums and galleries. You can’t curate a book – you edit it. And where on earth has ‘iteration’ come from? I’m seeing it everywhere these days. ‘The latest iteration of Microsoft Word…’ There’s a perfectly good word for this already – version. But that doesn’t sound impressive enough, does it?

 

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