User:Popcornfud/Thoughts on definite articles in names

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    The question of whether to write "The Beatles" (uppercase T) or "the Beatles" (lowercase t) was one of Wikipedia's longest and ugliest battles. It was even covered by the Wall Street Journal. Apparently the argument became so steamed that, following the result, editors had to be formally "strongly urged not to retire or threaten to retire" from Wikipedia.[1]

    The argument came down on the right side: "the Beatles", lowercase t. But in my view it didn't go far enough, and I think it has implications for how we ought to treat the definite article in names generally, not just for band names.

    Definite articles[edit]

    Many proper nouns in English use the definite article ("the"). For example:

    But many don't:

    Sometimes there's no logic to this. It's just the way things are done — decided by common use. That's it.

    The same goes for band names. Some use definite articles, and some don't:

    Again, this tends to be determined by common use. Usually the precedent is set by the band – they're the first people to use the name, after all – and everyone goes from there.

    Less straightforward examples[edit]

    Sometimes common use doesn't settle on one solution. In a 2020 interview,[2] (the) Beastie Boys expressed irritation that people often use the definite article with their name:

    Diamond: It bugs the shit out of us. All the time, people are like [does annoying squeaky voice] "the Beastie Boys". There's no "the" in the band name!

    Horovitz: Would you say "the Mudhoney"? "The Nirvana"?

    Diamond: You don't say "the Run DMC". "The Funkadelic."

    Unfortunately for Diamond and Horovitz, they may have themselves to blame. They set the precedent with their smash hit "Fight For Your Right" with the lines: "Your mom busted in and said, what's that noise? / Aw, mom you're just jealous it's the Beastie Boys."

    There may be a linguistic explanation as to why we're inclined to add the definite article to some band names but not others. In English, we tend to add articles to countable plural nouns (such as boys, pumpkins, pixies, fighters, peppers and chicks). This seems to occur far less often with uncountable or singular nouns — no one is tempted to say "the Nirvana" or "the Radiohead".

    The point is this[edit]

    In the words of Wikipedia's proper noun article: When the comes at the start of a proper name, as in the White House, it is not normally capitalized unless it is a formal part of a title.

    No copyeditor worth their style guide would dream, mid-sentence, of writing "The USA" or "The Eiffel Tower" with an uppercase The. You just don't capitalise definite articles before proper nouns in the middle of a sentence.

    Why should band names be the exception?

    But the "the" is part of the name[edit]

    Not really. Articles are just grammatical construction used before nouns, not parts of the noun.

    "The" is no more part of the noun Door in the sentence "I listen to the Doors" than it is in the noun cat in the sentence "look at the cat".

    The question is really about whether the definite article is used with the name, not whether the name contains the definite article.

    But the Beatles wrote "The Beatles", not "the Beatles"[edit]

    Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn't. To quote the result of the Beatles debate on Wikipedia:

    The evidence demonstrates that t/The Beatles were themselves inconsistent about whether to capitalize the "T", and t/The Beatles' record companies were and are inconsistent about whether to capitalize the "t", and t/The Beatles' biographers were and are inconsistent about whether to capitalize the "T", and so on and so forth.

    Musicians don't spend a lot of time worrying about this sort of thing. They incorporate all kinds of weird and wonderful stylizations into their names and titles. Sometimes they do it on purpose, to create a certain effect, but sometimes they do it without consideration, because it's not their job to know about proper nouns and definite articles. That's fine, but it doesn't mean we have to slavishly reproduce it in our Wikipedia writing, which should follow sensible, consistent patterns.

    The exception: titles of works[edit]

    Titles of works of art, literature, music, etc don't fall under this logic. It's The Lord of the Rings, not the Lord of the Rings.

    Why? Because titles aren't ordinary proper nouns like White House. They have their own conventions – for example, titles of works are italicised or encased in quotation marks by many publications (including Wikipedia).


    Right now, Wikipedia is horribly inconsistent about how it handles definite articles in names. For example, we have an article named Spice Girls (even though the Spice Girls always use the definite article), but another article named The Rolling Stones.

    In the interests of sense and consistency:

    • The name of the Beatles Wikipedia article should be Beatles, not The Beatles (just as it's White House, not The White House). In cases where disambiguation is required in article titles (such as with the Who), I don't care if we go with "Who (band)" or "The Who".
    • We should exclude "the" from wikilinks; eg the Beatles, not the Beatles (just as we wikilink the White House, not the White House).
    • We should exclude "the" from bolded names; eg the Beatles, not the Beatles (just as we bold the White House, not the White House).
    • All of the above goes for other institutions, such as companies (the Coca-Cola Company), newspapers (the New York Times), restaurants (the Fat Duck) and hotels (the Hilton). (This is already partly covered in the MOS:INSTITUTIONS guideline.)

    Of course, getting consensus for these proposals and renaming thousands of articles would be a lifetime's work. So I'm complaining about it in this essay instead.

    And yes[edit]

    All this also applies to the The.


    1. ^ Chaudhuri, Saabira (2012-10-13). "Editors Won't Let It Be When It Comes to 'the' or 'The'". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 2020-02-12.
    2. ^ Barshad, Amos. "The Beastie Boys on Their New Movie, Bidet Toilets, and Why You've Been Saying Their Name Wrong All These Years". GQ. Retrieved 2020-06-27.