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by Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research staff
‘The’ has its place. That, more or less, is the theme of Glenda Browne’s treatise called “The Definite Article: Acknowledging ‘The’ in Index Entries.”1
The ‘The’ article appears in The Indexer, the information- and fun-packed publication for professional indexers everywhere. The Indexer has its own index, which includes an entry for ‘Browne, Glenda.’
Brown characterizes herself as an Australian freelance indexer. Her study is a four-page-long guide for the ‘The’-perplexed. It explains that: “If ‘The’ exists in a name or title, it should exist in the index entry for that name or title. And if it exists in the index entry, it should be taken into account when sorting the entries.”
The problem is widespread, and although there are rules (at least three different -- and differing-- official sets of rules), indexers often go their own ways. Browne gives examples.
In the 2000/2001 Sydney telephone directory, “’Agency Register The’ and ‘Agency Personnel The’ are sorted under ‘A’, while ‘The Agency Australia’ is sorted under ‘The’. ‘The Sausage Specialist’ is filed under ‘The’ and ‘Sausage’, while ‘The Meat Emporium’ is only filed under ‘Meat Emporium The.’”
Browne explains some of the many reasons behind the inconsistencies.
‘The’ often doesn’t matter. There are many titles that include ‘The’, but then treat it as if it doesn’t exist. The masthead of [the newspaper] The Australian, for example, has a tiny ‘The’ above a large ‘Australian’. Their layout tells us that The is insignificant, but they won’t follow this through and omit it entirely. Corporate names such as ‘The University of Queensland’ are used at times with, and at times without, an initial ‘The’. This makes it very difficult for users to know whether ‘The’ is an integral part of the name....
On the other hand, in many corporate names ‘The’ has been deliberately chosen as the first word of the name, and is used consistently. The musical group ‘The Beatles’ is referred to as such, and never as ‘Beatles’. In these cases, the group considers the initial article significant, and it will be the access point consulted by many users. An extreme example is the group ‘The The’, which would look absurd with the initial ‘The’ omitted or inverted.
There are good reasons for sorting on ‘The’, says Glenda Brown, and good reasons for ignoring it. She suggests listing ‘The’ items twice: under ‘The’ AND under the second word in the entry. Lest that create unmanageably long lists of entries starting with ‘The’, she offers other alternatives.
Internationally, the “The” problem is not The problem -- it is merely A problem. Glenda Browne makes this clear at the very start of her paper, with a quotation from indexing maven Hans H. Wellisch:
Happy is the lot of an indexer of Latin, the Slavic languages, Chinese, Japanese, and some other tongues which do not have articles, whether definite or indefinite, initial or otherwise.
1. “The Definite Article: Acknowledging ‘The’ in Index Entries,” Glenda Browne, The Indexer, vol. 22, no. 3, April 2001, pp. 119-22.
2. Web Site Indexing, Glenda Browne and Jonathan Jermey, Auslib Press, Adelaide, Australia, 2004.
Glenda Brown is no one-shot wonder. Her book Web Site Indexing2 co-written with Jonathan Jermey, also features advice on the ‘The’ problem. Here is the pertinent entry in the index of that book.
The ‘The’ issue so moves Brown that she recently composed a poem, which we present here with her kind permission:
When filing a title ‘The’ goes at the end
And you start with a lower-case letter.
But an index of first lines puts ‘the’ at the front
Somehow they think that works better.
For corporate bodies ‘The’s’ often left out;
It’s part of the name but it has not much clout.
But in place names the ‘the’ is important to show
You must trust the rules, for surely they know!
This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2006 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!
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