Mind your language

The

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

Veronica, who looks at Twitter, told me of an exchange she thought would interest me, about the use of the. She was right. The is one of my favourite words.

The exchange concerned Sam Leith’s splendid new book, Write to the Point: How to be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page. He begins one chapter thus: ‘In his The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), Joseph Conrad…’. Should he have written that yoking of ‘his The’?


A friend of Veronica’s recommended Kingsley Amis on the subject. In (his) The King’s English, Amis is characteristically forthright. ‘Kafka’s The Castle,’ he writes, ‘is the sort of thing that people never say but make no bones about writing.’ He rooted out from his memory a legendary attempt by The Times always to have the definite article cleaving to its name. It failed at jumps such as ‘the The Times crossword’.

There is a delightful complication with The Nigger of the Narcissus because the Narcissus is the name of a ship. Most of us feel drawn to italicise the names of ships. On the cover of the first edition of the short novel, the title was blocked in gold leaf as The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, with no italics, for reasons of display. In the so-called New Oxford Style Manual (which puts Hart’s Rules and Odwe between the same covers), the advice is not to put back into roman type a title within an italic title. It favours The Voyage of the Meteor, while acknowledging that some publishers put italics within italics into quotation marks.

Amis remarks that it looked until recently as if you could write of Burgess’s Clockwork Orange and Kafka’s Castle, but ‘indexers unnecessarily and pissily put a stop to that’ by throwing A and The and so on back in front of the main body of the title. As the New Oxford Style Manual tacitly implies, it is possible to contrive constructions that look or sound messy. ‘Have you read Westward Ho!?’ may be correct, but ‘Why did you exclaim ‘Don’t give me Westward Ho!!’?’ is getting silly.

By the way, I see no reason why we should not discuss The Nigger of the Narcissus by name. It is a humane and wonderfully written book.

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