Errors & Omissions: Once you start throwing around capitals, you just can't stop

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The annoying habit of putting a capital T on the word "the" reached a new level of absurdity in a news story, published on Thursday, about the death of Harry Patch, the last surviving British veteran of the First World War. "Radiohead's frontman Thom Yorke yesterday announced the band was releasing a tribute song to the man dubbed The Last Tommy."

On that basis, you would have to cap up the T wherever "the" applies to any proper noun. Stand by for The First World War, and heaven knows what.

However, if Radiohead do produce their song, and if it is called "The Last Tommy", then, in the song title, the capital T would be right. By and large, the capital T is confined to the names of periodicals where "The" appears on the masthead, and the titles of literary and artistic works – The Third Man, The Tempest, The Fighting Temeraire.

The point here is that the definite article "the" applies to the thing the work is named after. It is thus part of the title and needs a capital letter. In the rare instances where the "the" applies to the work itself rather than its subject, a lower case T is preferred – the Bible, the Iliad, the Rokeby Venus.

To sum up, The Fighting Temeraire is a painting of the fighting Temeraire, but the Rokeby Venus is the painting of Venus that used to hang at Rokeby Park. A book of art criticism about the Rokeby Venus might be entitled The Rokeby Venus.

People seem to think that capping up the T confers prestige on the thing they are writing about; that somehow The Last Tommy is a more important person than the Last Tommy. I don't see it.

Incidentally, the name Thom Yorke should have appeared between two commas, since Radiohead has only one frontman and Yorke is he. Without the commas, the sentence implies that the band has several frontmen, of whom Yorke is one.


Legal mix-up: A news story on Saturday reported: "The Church of England is planning to prosecute a photographer for blasphemy after he chose a famous English church for an illicit erotic photoshoot." The accompanying headline said: "CofE to sue photographer for erotic snaps taken inside church."

Well, which is it? I appreciate that "sue" is much shorter than "prosecute", which makes it useful for the headline, but they do not mean the same. "Prosecute" implies a criminal case, "sue" a civil action.

Contrary: Here is an excellent example of how dangerous abstract nouns can be. Tom Sutcliffe wrote this at the start of his Wednesday television review: "The unbearability of problem neighbours is in inverse ratio to their proximity."

Strip out the abstract nouns – "unbearability", "ratio", "proximity" – and you have this: "Problem neighbours become more unbearable the farther away they are." It is now obvious that Sutcliffe has written the opposite of what he meant to say.


Where was that? Last Saturday's magazine ran a collection of reminiscences of childhood at the seaside. Each was headed with the name of the author and of the seaside place. The places were named as follows: Margate; Ibiza; Eccles; Mombasa; Burntisland, Scotland.

We didn't bother to say "Margate, England" or "Mombasa, Kenya". So why "Burntisland, Scotland"? Probably because it is the only one of these places that doesn't sound even vaguely familiar to most people in the South-east of England. So it needs to be explained.

Readers in Scotland, Wales and the North of England get wearily used to this assumption that the real world is the world as seen from London, and anywhere north of Watford or west of Slough is as mysterious as Mongolia. But a newspaper that claims to be national, and puts a jaunty St Andrew's cross on the masthead of its Scottish edition, ought to do better.


Cliché of the week: This is from a profile of the Barclays Bank boss Bob Diamond, published on Wednesday. "His meteoric rise began when BZW's shares business was sold to his old employer not long after he joined."

Meteors do not rise; they fall. A "meteoric" career is one that blazes in brief glory before falling into darkness, a fate not yet suffered by Mr Diamond.