Of "the" I sing

August 07, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The

At The Baltimore Sun we are scrupulous about referring to the Johns Hopkins University.

That is not, as some may imagine, because we are truckling to the largest employer in the city (or to the likelihood that Baltimore will eventually change its name formally to Hopkins). That is just how the name of the school is idiomatically rendered. That is how I heard Hopkins referred to years ago when I was an undergraduate out on the Michigan tundra.

It was, however, social-climbing pretension when Ohio State University decided to style itself The Ohio State University and to insist that everyone else fall into line.* Hopkins aside, the use of the definite article with the names of colleges and universities is well established in idiom.

The is used with University of, not with X State. It's the University of Michigan, the University of Iowa, the University of Kentucky, the University of Maryland. It's Michigan State University, Iowa State University, Bowie State University, and the like.** Moreover, it is not the  Harvard University or the Dartmouth College. Harvard already knows that it is the one and only.

Sometimes, you may have noticed, dropping the definite article is a means of suggesting importance. Government bureaucrats have taken on this habit. You see them quoted as saying that "EPA has ruled" or "CIA has discovered." The combination of the dropped article and initialisms makes for a clipped speech, as if the speaker is too absorbed in weighty affairs of state, too pressed by weighty  responsibilities to waste time on articles. Apparently the ambition is to sound like those characters in Aaron Sorkin dramas who talk too fast.

And sometimes you can get into trouble by using the definite article. Do not, I caution you, speak or write of the Ukraine. The definite article is most frequently used with regions, not independent nations: the Yukon, the Great Plains, not the Great Britain. Ukraine is no longer a region of the Soviet Union or Russia, something Ukrainians are all to ready to remind you of.

*As a graduate of a sister cow college, I am entitled to a measure of scorn. There's something a little socially insecure and arriviste about Ohio State's insistence on the definite article.

**State has gotten to be a little downmarket. A few years ago Towson State University, originally a normal school, transmogrified itself into Towson University, and the school made no bones about its motive, to upgrade its catchment of potential enrollees.

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