Mind your language

Why ‘The’ Queen should not be capitalised

22 August 2020

9:00 AM

22 August 2020

9:00 AM

I complained mildly seven years ago that the Court Circular, the official source for the doings of the British monarchy, referred to the Queen as ‘The Queen’. It made her look like a work of fiction. The Royal Household is at it still, referring to ‘The Princess Royal’, ‘The Royal Navy’ and even ‘The Royal Arms of Canada’. The result looks like the late Betty Kenward’s ‘Jennifer’s Diary’ in Harpers & Queen: the triumph of deference over grammar.

No one, I hope, would write ‘The Tower of London’, even though it is Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London. By its nature, the definite article does not partake in the capitalisation of proper names. Unless the name comes at the beginning of a sentence, it is the Thames, the Glorious Twelfth, the Prime Minister, the BBC, the Scottish parliament. But the poor old Royal Household, tempted into using a capital T for fear oflèse-majesté, doesn’t know where to stop, referring even to ‘Princess Anne’s wedding tiara, The Queen Mary Fringe Tiara’. In that construction the goes with tiara; it does not qualify Queen Mary. In any case, Queen Mary was not ‘the Queen Mary’ — that was a ship.


Language being an instrument of snobbery, some institutions have long rejoiced in the shibboleth of not using the. Albany, the sets of rooms off Piccadilly, is one; Guildhall in the City of London another. I am more annoyed by the journalese accepted on newspaper business pages by which the is omitted from a formula like ‘the retail chain Marks & Spencer’. In one short report the reader is told of ‘law firm Linklaters’, ‘US law firm Akin Gump’ and ‘magic circle law firm Slaughter and May’.

As a marketing ploy, the Tate Gallery became Tate (though that slavery-stained name may not last much longer). Other outfits embrace the article and seem to expect it to be capitalised. On the same day I read about ‘The Friends of Coleridge’ and of ‘The Morris Federation’. Altogether there seems a loss of certainty about this convention in written English. But if we can’t allow the Queen to capitalise her definite article, we can hardly extend the privilege to ‘The Britannia Coconut Dancers’.

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