Capitalizing Titles

Which words should you capitalize?

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #279
Capitalizing Titles

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 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 considered using the more complicated Chicago 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.

Be Consistent

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.

Don’t Oversimplify

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.


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