How to Style Titles of Compositions

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Navigating the formatting rules about titles of compositions — books and chapters, movies and TV shows, albums and songs, and the like — can seem like negotiating a minefield. Here’s a handy map to help you maneuver through the terrain:

In print, two primary formats exist for identifying a creative work. Titles of entire bodies of work such as a book, a TV series, or an album are often italicized, while titles for components of each — book chapters, TV episodes, or songs — are usually enclosed in quotation marks.

Easy enough, but what about creations such as paintings and poems? A painting is a discrete work, but it is also often displayed as part of an exhibition. What do you do? In this case, italicize the painting’s title but style the title of the exhibition in roman, or ordinary, type. (However, single ancient works of art, such as the Venus de Milo, are simply styled in roman.) As for short poems collected in an anthology, style their titles like those of book chapters, but italicize the titles of book-length poems.

Photographs are considered elements of a larger work, such as a book or an exhibition, and their titles are simply enclosed in quotation marks.

And what about capitalization? Generally, in a title, always capitalize the first and last words regardless of part of speech, plus nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and long conjunctions (those other than and, but, for, nor, and or.) Lowercase prepositions (over, under, through, etc.) unless they are key to the title (A Walk Through Time) or as part of an adverbial or adjectival phrase (Turn Up the Volume).

The initial definite or indefinite article in a title can be preempted by a nonitalicized article if it conflicts with the sentence structure. For example, write “The Wizard of Oz audio book is a best-seller.” But if this style looks awkward, just relax the sentence: “The audio-book version of The Wizard of Oz is a best-seller.”

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3 thoughts on “How to Style Titles of Compositions”

  1. News flash:

    The newest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, the guidelines of record for many publishing companies and publications, has altered the book’s long-standing recommendations for treatment of names of art exhibitions and titles of photographs:

    “Titles of photographs are now treated like those of paintings—that is, set in italics.”

    “Formally titled art exhibitions, like exhibition catalogs, are now italicized.”

  2. Forgive me; I’m a bit behind. In the final paragraph, how does the example to cite illustrate the point you’re trying to make? Wouldn’t you be providing an example in which the definite article is not only not italicized but also lowercase? If I didn’t know any better (and I concede that I may not), the example that you provide is an example of eliminating the build-up before “audio book.”

  3. SAM:

    Thanks for your note. Unfortunately, the formatting wasn’t retained when the post was uploaded to the site; I hope to have it corrected soon. In the meantime:

    “‘The Wizard of Oz audio book is a best-seller.’ But if this style looks awkward, just relax the sentence: ‘The audio-book version of The Wizard of Oz is a best-seller.'”

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