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September 5th, 2008

The with job descriptions / atheists' god

by Barbara Wallraff

Jeannie Prinsen, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “My question concerns a usage I have noticed in magazines and newspapers. An article I read referred to Meryl Streep ‘and her husband, THE sculptor Don Gummer.’ The use of ‘the’ surprised me. It seems misleading, as if there is only one sculptor and he is it -- or as if he is so famous that we all should have heard of him. Without ‘the,’ he sounds less well-known. Is this a journalistic usage, and is it meant to give the impression I got from it?”

Dear Jeannie: It’s literary as well as journalistic. If there were a comma between “the sculptor” and “Don Gummer,” the phrase would mean what you said, making it either pretentious or wrong. But as it is, something else is going on. The rule about the difference is clear as a bell if you’re used to it and baffling if you’re not. Here goes:

A few nouns that come before names are titles, and these are treated almost as if they were part of the person’s name -- for instance, Prime Minister Stephen Harper or Dr. Phil. But most nouns are just descriptions. For instance, I’m a newspaper columnist, but that’s not a title. So you could refer to me as “Barbara Wallraff, a newspaper columnist” or “a newspaper columnist, Barbara Wallraff” or, ahem, “the newspaper columnist Barbara Wallraff.”

This last one isn’t stuck-up. It just means “that particular columnist.” In this way, “the columnist Barbara Wallraff” is like “the woman sitting hunched in front of her computer”: the name or the part about sitting in front of the computer indicates which columnist or woman we’re talking about.

Once you’re used to this convention, phrases like “columnist Barbara Wallraff” and “sculptor Don Gummer,” without a “the,” look a little suspect. They seem to be trying to make a title out of “columnist” or “sculptor” -- either that or the space on the page was so pitifully tight that there wasn’t even room to tuck in a word as short as “the.”

Phrases like “the actress, Meryl Streep, and the sculptor, Don Gummer,” with commas, are worse than suspect -- they’re almost invariably wrong. Wrong because -- as you picked up on -- there isn’t only one actress or sculptor, and that is what the phrase implies.

Stace Tackaberry, of Breckenridge, Colo., writes: “If an atheist is writing a story, would he or she capitalize the ‘g’ in ‘god’?”

Dear Stace: It depends on the atheist. Christopher Hitchens generally wrote the word in lowercase in his best-selling book “God Is Not Great.” But he capitalized it when he put it in the mouth of a believer -- for instance, “Seeking ambitiously to fuse her two roles as nature instructor and Bible teacher, she said, ‘So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is.’” Not a bad compromise.

Capitalizing a word is fundamentally a mark of respect. (You know that -- it’s why you asked the question.) All the same, we shouldn’t read too much meaning into any particular capital. Most of us capitalize the word “I,” but that doesn’t make us egomaniacs.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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