The rules for formatting titles of compositions and their constituent parts may seem complicated, but they follow a fairly straightforward set of guidelines, outlined below.
Titles of compositions are generally formatted in headline, or title style. In this system, the first letters of the following words are capitalized:
- The first and last word of the title, regardless of part of speech
- Nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (such as although, because, and than)
In titles, the following words are lowercased:
- Prepositions (except when they are used adjectivally or adverbially (in such phrases as “off day” and “come down”)
- To when it is part of an infinitive (for example, “to exercise”)
- All articles, prepositions, and coordinating conjunctions (such as and, but, and or)
Italics are used for titles of books, periodicals, films, television specials and series, and both series titles and episode titles for anthology programs like Masterpiece Theatre, though episodes of regular series, as well as titles of book chapters and magazine, newspaper, and online articles, are enclosed in quotation marks.
Some publications, including most newspapers and some magazines, use quotation marks for titles of all compositions as well as parts of compositions, but italics are almost always employed for this purpose in books, and I highly recommend maintaining this distinction in periodicals and online.
Titles of many nonfiction books include a subtitle following a colon, and except in informal usage, the full title should be used on first reference; the title alone — the part preceding the colon — can be used thereafter.
Note that magazine and similar descriptive words should be capitalized and italicized only if they are part of a publication title: refer to “the New York Times Magazine,” for example, but “Time magazine”; in the former case, magazine is officially part of the publication’s name. (In a context in which it is obvious that Time, for example, refers to the publication with that title, the word magazine can be omitted.)
Also, as shown in this example, do not capitalize or italicize the before a publication name, whether or not it is part of the title. Various publications differ in self-identification, even when their titles share a word — for example, the New York Times bills itself as “The New York Times,” while the Los Angeles Times omits the article — and this rule is designed to save writers the trouble of having to check individual publications for specific usage.
Titles of plays and of poems long enough to be published in book form are italicized; titles of poems short enough to be included in a collection in a book are formatted, like chapter titles, in quotation marks.
To determine how to treat titles of websites and their components, compare them to print equivalents: A website that sells products and/or services, even if it features content related to those offerings, is an online store, and the site name should not be formatted as a composition title. But titles of sites that emulate books and periodicals, and their articles and essays, should be treated like them; the same standard applies to blogs and blog posts.
What about titles of videos posted online? Many such videos, especially those posted to video-sharing sites such as YouTube, don’t have titles — or lack well-thought-out titles — so they can just be referred to generically (“See Smith’s video about wombats”), with a link. For those with traditionally composed titles, however, use either italics or, especially for short videos, quotation marks.