Which words should you capitalize?
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 for headlines, 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.
The most important thing about title capitalization is to be consistent.
The most important thing about title capitalization is to be consistent.
The Grammar Girl website now uses a simplified version of Associated Press style, which I can also explain to writers by giving them a relatively short list of words that are not capitalized: “a,” “an,” “and,” “at,” “but,” “by,” “for,” “in,” “nor,” “of,” “on,” “or,” "out," “so,” “the,” “to,” “up,” and “yet.” I have considered using the true, more complicated version of the style, but I found that having to figure out how words are being used is too difficult. It’s hard enough to get people to follow straightforward rules, and when I ask writers or even editors to figure out whether a preposition is being used adverbially or adjectivally before they decide to capitalize it, either they can’t do it, or it’s so difficult that they don’t even bother to try.
I believe the most important thing about title capitalization is to be consistent throughout your document and across your publications or website, so although some people may think that if I prefer Chicago style, I should force my writers and editors to use it; I believe you have to choose a style that is comprehensible to your writers. It doesn’t do any good to have a style that people struggle to follow. My advice is to be realistic when choosing a style.
On the other hand, I do believe you can take simplification too far. For example, I’ve seen people use what I consider overly simplified styles such as capitalizing every letter of every word or keeping everything lowercase, even words that would normally be capitalized such as names. The Yahoo! Style Guide specifically recommends against these two styles. For example, they note that all caps can be difficult to read and some people equate all caps online with shouting (3).
All lowercase is an incredibly informal style—I’m sure someone will write in with an example to prove me wrong—but I can’t recall ever seeing this style in print. To me it seems like something that only happens online.
There’s Nothing Special About the Verb 'Is'
One question I’ve been getting a lot lately about title capitalization is whether forms of the verb “to be” should be capitalized—words such as “is” and “was.” For example, a reader named Tony wrote that he was discussing capitalization of such verbs with two of his professors, and one said they should be capitalized and the other said they shouldn’t. He said he checked various style guides, but none of them seemed to address the topic.
The reason he couldn’t find anything specifically about “is” or “was” is that they are just verbs. There’s nothing special about them, so when a style book says to capitalize all the verbs, the writers usually presume you’ll know that includes the verbs “is” and “was.” It’s a common error though: one of Tony’s professors got it wrong, it’s actually one of the errors I find myself fixing a lot in the Quick and Dirty Tips newsletters, and the Yahoo! Style Guide—one of the newer style guides on the market—makes a point of mentioning that conjugated forms of the word "to be" should always be capitalized in titles even though they are short words.
Rewrite to Avoid Starting a Sentence with a Lowercase Name
Another common question is how to handle headlines or titles that begin with company names or product names that start with a lowercase letter, such as “iPhone” or “eBay,” since every legitimate headline style says you should capitalize the first letter of the headline. If you can, rewrite it so the word that needs a lowercase letter at the beginning is in the middle of the headline or title, and then write it as the companies want you to—in camel case, with a lowercase letter at the beginning and a capital letter in the middle.
If you can’t avoid having an iPhone- or eBay-type word at the beginning of your title, it’s up to you whether you keep the first letter lowercase. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends just starting the title with the lowercase letter at the beginning of the product or company name (e.g., iPhone Found on the Moon), but the Associated Press and the Yahoo! Style Guide both recommend capitalizing the first letter when such words must appear at the beginning of a sentence or headline (e.g. EBay to Start Selling Air).
Pick a Style for the Second Half of Hyphenated Words
Another common question is whether to capitalize the second part of a hyphenated word in a headline. Again, there are multiple styles. You just need to decide on one and be consistent. The style I use is that if I would capitalize the second part if it were a separate word in the title, then I capitalize it when it comes after a hyphen.
Make a Decision and Stick with It
As you can see, there are a lot of decisions to make about headline and title styles. If your boss, editor, or teacher has a preferred style, you should use that; but if you are the master of your own universe, for example, an independent blogger, you’re free to choose any method. The important thing is that once you pick your style, stick with it. Inconsistency is always bad.
Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and the author of The Grammar Devotional and Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
- “Principles of Headline-Style Capitalization,” Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, online. (accessed June 7, 2011).
- “Composition Titles,” AP Stylebook, Online Edition, 2011. (accessed June 7, 2011).
- Barr, C. and the Senior Editors of Yahoo!, “Capitalization,” The Yahoo! Style Guide, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010. Image: at Wikimedia