Rules for Capitalization in Titles

By Carla Lowe

I used to think there were only two ways to use capitalization in a title: (1) Capitalize only the first word in the title (except for proper nouns), which I learned working for a local newspaper; and (2) Capitalize the principal and longer words and lowercase the minor, shorter words, which I learned was wrong.

I also came to learn that the rules for capitalization in titles—like the rules for other areas of English grammar—are not set in stone; style guides and grammarians disagree on which words to capitalize in a title.

In fact, there are really only two rules that are consistent across the board:

  • Capitalize the first word of the title
  • Capitalize all proper nouns

Sentence case, or down style, is one method, preferred by many print and online publications and recommended by the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. The only two rules are the two rules mentioned above: Capitalize the first word and all proper nouns. Everything else is in lowercase. For example:

Why it’s never too late to learn grammar (all words lowercased except “Why”—first word in title)

Another method is to capitalize all words in a title. This one is considered simple because there’s no struggle trying to remember which words to capitalize and which ones to lowercase; they’re all capitalized. However, one could argue it’s the lazy man’s method or that it’s not very aesthetic. For example:

Why It’s Never Too Late To Learn Grammar (all words capitalized)

Title case, or up style, is another method. Whether or not you capitalize a word in a title depends on its part of speech. According to most style guides that use title case, the basic rules are as follows:

  • Capitalize the first and last word in a title, regardless of part of speech
  • Capitalize all nouns (baby, country, picture), pronouns (you, she, it), verbs (walk, think, dream), adjectives (sweet, large, perfect), adverbs (immediately, quietly), and subordinating conjunctions (as, because, although)
  • Lowercase “to” as part of an infinitive
  • Lowercase all articles (a, the), prepositions (to, at, in, with), and coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or)

For example:

Why It’s Never Too Late to Learn Grammar (all words capitalized except “to,” a preposition)

That last rule for title case is upheld by some style guides, but not all. The Chicago Manual of Style follows that rule (except in cases in which an article, preposition, or coordinating conjunction is the first or last word in a title). However, The Associated Press would have you capitalize prepositions and conjunctions if they are four or more letters long. For others, the magic number is five rather than four. So, according to some guides, you have to worry not only about the part of speech, but also about the length of the words.

There is another common—but incorrect—“method” of using capitalization in titles. I used to follow it myself (see my first paragraph). Many writers mistakenly believe that in a title, you should capitalize the principal and longer words and lowercase the minor, shorter words.

For example, writers often lowercase all two- or three-letter words in a title because they’re short, and many articles, prepositions, and conjunctions—most of which should be lowercased—are short, as well. However, short words can be nouns, pronouns, and verbs, etc., which should be capitalized. Part of speech is more important than length when it comes to determining capitalization in titles. For example:

Why it’s Never too Late to Learn Grammar (wrong)

“It’s” is a contraction of “it,” a pronoun, and “is,” a verb, both of which should be capitalized; “too” is an adverb, which should also be capitalized.

Regardless of which convention you’d prefer to follow (except for the last example), you need to be consistent. Pick one (or follow the style guide of your employer, school, or clients) and stick with it.

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21 Responses to “Rules for Capitalization in Titles”

  • Cindy Bidar

    Thanks for these tips. I wonder if the title-case method is older than the sentence-case method, since that’s the way we were taught about 100 years ago, right along with two spaces after a period.

    Maybe it’s time to update my thinking on that. One thing’s for sure, it would save me time trying to figure out what to capitalize and what not to.

  • Rebecca

    Great advice! It can be tricky to know which words to capitalize. When it doubt, look it up!

  • Brett

    I love this post! I’ve been bouncing all over the map on this one and appreciate the clear presentation. I normally make an attempt at the 3rd method (Title case) but wasn’t familiar with the rules. For such a seemingly small item for a blog post, it was stressing me out!

    Thanks.

  • thebluebird11

    I don’t really see any hard and fast rules being delivered in this post, which is fine. I have no problem finding my comfort zone and sticking to it. My personal preference apparently has a name (Title Case).

    However, I must comment on the statement that “Sentence case, or down style, is one method, preferred by many print and online publications and recommended by the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.”

    If they espouse Sentence Case, why are the words “Manual,” “Psychological” and “Association” capitalized?! (OK, maybe “Psychological” and “Association” are considered proper nouns in the sense that they are the part of the title of this particular association. But “manual”?)

  • Wakas Mir

    Great tips.. I might have to focus on which style I would stick to.

  • Cygnifier

    Interesting article on the complexities of capitalization! Thanks. As a writer and editor, I’ve discovered that one almost never gets to “pick” the style one likes best — the goal is to determine the house style required and stick with that religiously.

    With APA, a mix of capitalization styles is called for. For reference lists in citing an article in a journal, the article title itself is done in sentence-case while the name of the journal is in title-case. Same for magazines and newspapers. Oddly enough, book titles are to be given in sentence-case, except for proper nouns, of course. So in a reference list, the title of the APA manual would be the Publication manual of the American Psychological Association! For titles in the body of a paper, one uses title-case, but without capitalizing conjunctions, articles, or prepositions shorter than four letters. So in the text itself, the APA manual would be Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Logical? No. But to play in their ballpark, one must follow their rules. Does the MLA (Modern Language Association) style match with APA for capitalization? Of course not. That would be too easy. Try teaching an English composition course which is supposed to prepare students to enter both the social sciences and the humanites — keeping APA and MLA straight is really quite the challenge these days and capitalization is just a piece of it. And then the history faculty complain that they get students who don’t know how to footnote properly. Sigh.

  • TechWriter

    “Learn” is a verb in my dictionary, so that would make the “to” in “to learn” part of the infinitive.

  • Alexander Davis

    Great explanation. I was wondering about this for a long time.

  • Mark Nichol

    Fortunately, most nonacademic writers don’t need to concern themselves with the conflicting dictates of various manuals for specific disciplines like the APA and the MLA. But it’s still confusing to a layperson. Here’s a breakdown by media type of what you’re likely to see:

    Newspapers vary in their capitalization style for headlines, from using initial caps for every word to using sentence case. Magazines do so also, but they are not necessarily consistent from one article to the next, because they may design a given article headline to resonate with the feature’s theme (military-style stencil lettering for an profile about a soldier) or tone (a whimsical font for a story about the circus).

    Book-cover designers often play with font and case, too but the style on the title page (and in references to other books in a book’s text) will generally be title case. Trade books — those for lay consumers, as opposed to scholars — that include bibliographies and references usually use title case in those resources, too.

    Title case is what you’ll usually see on professionally edited Web sites as well, and it’s the default style for writing most people are likely to undertake.

  • Ken

    Carla, did you mean “Many” in “May writers mistakenly believe…”?
    Good post. Thank you.

  • Carla

    Thanks for your comments, everybody.
    Ken – I absolutely meant “Many”….thanks for pointing that out! Even proofreaders need their work proofread…

  • Charles Flynn

    Many Thanks for This Wonderful Essay

    I would disagree only with one thing. You use the word ‘worry’ in the phrase “…you have to worry not only about the part of speech…” when ‘be aware of’ would perhaps be less pejorative or off-putting.

    I think this topic is one of those things that just have to be done right, and which once learned bring professionalism to us amateurs – joyful for both the writer and the reader. Following this particular rule fully embellished fulfills many of the purposes of a title: grab and focus attention in an aesthetic way.

    I had learned much of the rule, but not all. Now I can pay attention to who uses the rule effectively and who lets things slip. Your example of the American Psychological Association Publication Manual was interesting. Since they are known for their tendency to make milquetoast of ‘complications’, even at the cost of losing the effect and purpose of the chore, I believed your version of their rule. But on their site I found them quite internally inconsistent. There are examples of every title type.

    Again, thank you for the essay.

    PS – Cindy, the two space rule depended on the culture and when you learned to type. Typesetting machines and word-processors have never needed two spaces, and possibly not even proportionate Selectronic typewriters.

  • Sharon Elin

    I agree with TechWriter. “To” is not a preposition when used with a verb. It becomes part of the verb as an infinitive.

  • Garrison

    Here’s why it is Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association:

    Publication Manual: Proper noun

    American Psychological Association: Proper noun

    You see, it is not just a Publication, nor is it just a Manual, it is a Publication Manual and that is its proper name, just as American Psychological Association is a proper name.

    Also, I believe it may bolster their self-esteem.

    P.S. Being ultra-radical I still put two spaces after a period and a colon! This website persists in correcting it, however, and my defiant space statements go unheard.

  • thebluebird11

    @Garrison: Rumor has it that the two-space habit originated with the [manual] typewriters that didn’t do any kind of automatic spacing adjustments, and so putting two spaces allowed for easier and faster reading, skimming and searching of documents (which, in those primitive days, were called papers). This two-space habit persisted into the use of WordPerfect (or should I say, WordImPerfect). The first medical transcription company I worked for had a particular account, a very large local hospital here, and all our work was done COMPLETELY in capital letters. Imagine reading pages and pages of documentation in all caps. The double space between sentences allowed a little rest for the weary eyes. I continue to use two spaces between sentences (and after colons), since I think it still makes skimming and searching documents easier. Whether or not my computer software makes any adjustments (and I don’t see that it does), I don’t know or care; by now, the two-space habit is ingrained, and it would take me a long time to get rid of it; not worth the effort. However, if the web site wants to eliminate my double spaces, it is free to do so. I won’t lose time–or sleep–over it! (and I’m thrilled to be considered ultra-radical about SOMEthing LOL)

  • Garrison

    @thebluebird11,

    Yes, once we did type manually with no power required. Except of course the power to jam those sticky keys down hard enough to make an impression through the ribbon. Back then I used to find the ends of sentences by turning the paper over and holding it up to the light to see where the “stars” were. LOL. I think the old Underwood may still be in the closet at my parent’s house.

    After that was a nice little Smith-Corona electric typewriter that tended to put too many spaces between things. It was a fine improvement, but still had a ribbon. By the way, why was there a red half on the bottom of the ribbon? I don’t think I ever used red to type anything.

    In the mid-80’s I got a Smith-Corona that had a small screen and memory download on to a floppy disk that allowed you to edit and save documents. The only advantage to this system was that the saved document was re-typed by the machine, making it appear like an original paper. It was also fairly small and portable and I could plug it in at the library, unlike the cumbersome and virtually useless IBM PC Jr. I invested in just a year before.

    I still use two spaces after commas because that was how I learned to type way back in the third grade. When I wrote my dissertation in the early 80’s that was still the APA norm. In fact, that was still the norm up until the early 90’s when I was reading student’s dissertations. As recently as 2008 I was writing court reports using two spaces and I never heard any complaints. It has only been in the last year that I discovered the one-space-rule and MLA due to proofreading my son’s papers. When it comes to things written, I am hopelessly out of date.

    But, I keep up the good fight. Right on, far out, and power to the people! LOL.

  • George

    I was once instructed to lower case state-of-being verbs. Is that part of any accepted convention?

  • Stacie Walker

    Thank you for providing this valuable content on when to capitalize words in a title. Lately, I have been writing a lot of articles and I want to make sure my grammar is as correct as possible.

    I really appreciate your help.

    Stacie Walker

  • April

    Thank you. I confess that capitalization is one of my many grammar weak spots. I think I will sign up for your newsletter:-)

  • Katy G.

    I have worked as a professional writer for a several years. I constantly have to fight with people about the capitalization of the word “is” in a title. Since it is a verb, I have always capitalized “is” in titles; however, I constantly see others putting it in lowercase. I sometimes wonder if there is a rule I am unaware of. I have checked with case-checking websites, and these always say to capitalize “is” as well. Lately, I have become mired in self-doubt. I find myself wanting to lowercase “is” because I hate having others look at me with pity for what they think is my ignorance of proper style. I know this is my own insecurity, and I just wanted to vent. This post seems to support my position. However, if anyone knows why “is” should be in lowercase, please let me know so I won’t continue down this misguided editorial path.

  • Liam

    Capitalise the first word of the title and capitalise all proper nouns. No more, no less.

    Leave the arguments over this method actually being correct aside for a moment, it’s more aesthetically pleasing.

    And, for the love of all things holy, no double spaces. Please!

    Double spaces after a comma? That’s madness.

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