Which words should you capitalize?
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When you’re writing a title, you’re confronted with a shocking number of formatting options. How you decide to handle capitalization is up to you; it’s a style choice. All the major style guides make recommendations. Here are some of the more acceptable styles I’ve seen in use:
- Capitalize the first word of the title, the last word of the title, and all nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, subordinating conjunctions, and a few conjunctions. Prepositions are only capitalized if they are used adjectivally or adverbially. For example you’d capitalize the word “up” in a title that read “Squiggly Looked Up a Word” but not in a title that read “Squiggly Walked up the Mountain.” That is the short version of the formatting recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style (1).
- Capitalize the first word of the title, the last word of the title, and all “principal” words (that’s essentially the same parts of speech I just listed—nouns, verbs and so on), and all words longer than three letters. That is the style currently recommended by the Associated Press (2). (You can see one of the major differences between Chicago and AP style is that in Chicago style, a long preposition such as “between” would not usually be capitalized, whereas in AP style, it would.) [Update: the Associated Press now uses sentence style, the style described next.]
Only capitalize the first letter of the first word of the title and words that would be capitalized in a sentence, such as someone’s name. This style is often called “sentence style” because it’s how you write sentences. (The Los Angeles Times website currently uses this style instead of the recommended Associated Press style.)
Capitalize the first letter of every word. (The MTV website currently uses this style.)
I learned the hard way that Grammar Girl readers (or at least the readers who like to complain) have an overwhelming preference for the more complicated styles. The original version of the Grammar Girl website used one of the simpler styles, and boy, did I hear about it.