There are varying and often confusing rules to the use of the English language and none so much as title capitalization. With a language that’s so pervasive and commonly used, you’re bound to find different schools of thought that define the rules in their own way.
When it comes to print media and even forms of online written content, the rules can get even more difficult to ascertain. Specifically, when you talk about writing an article, book or even a social media post – thes rules can get very detailed and all the more elusive.
There is an abundance of different style guides out there, and even veteran writers can find themselves making mistakes every now and again.
If you’ve found yourself stumped on your journey towards creating exceptional online content, this guide is for you.
Simple Rules for Title Capitalization
Before we can get into the exact nuances that matter with each style, let’s look at the things that most styles have in common. To start off…
Always Capitalize the First and Last Words
Let’s start with a fairly straightforward rule. Always capitalize the first and last word of your title, regardless of what those words are. For example:
Incorrect: “tips to capitalizing titles”
Correct: “Tips to Capitalizing Titles”
Always Capitalize oYur Nouns
While the jury might be out on other parts of speech, all of your mainstream style guides agree that nouns are of great importance in a title.
A noun is defined as a word that identifies a class of objectsor a specific instance of that class, where the object in question can be any place, animal, or thing (real or abstract). Common nouns deal with class identifiers, while proper nouns deal with instances. Consider the following sentence:
“Hello, my name is Jim.”
Now it’s easy to tell that the word “Jim” carries importance here since it contributes heavily to the sentences communicated. So is the word “name”, since it determines what the word “Jim” defines. In this case, “Jim” is an example of a proper noun, while “name” is a common noun, and when you’re writing in prose or paragraphs, the rules state that you’re only supposed to capitalize proper nouns, while common nouns are left in lower case unless they’re starting off a sentence.
Titles, however, are different. If there was a title in our sentence, the word “name” would also be capitalized, regardless of whichever style you’re using. Pronouns are the same; you shouldn’t write words like “I”, “You”, “We”, or “Us” without capitalizing them.
Common and proper nouns are both categories of principle words, as are pronouns, so you shouldn’t usually leave them in the lowercase.
So, in this case, our final statement becomes:
“Hello, my Name is Jim”
We’re gradually getting closer to a statement that would function perfectly as a title, but we’re not yet there. Next up…
Always Capitalize Your Verbs, Adverbs, and Adjectives
Words like “my” and “your” can be confusing since they function as different types of speech depending on how they’re used. Technically speaking, they’re attributive adjectives or adverbs denoting possession.
This means that they commute the ownership attributed through a pronoun to a common noun or verb. If “I have a car”, then that car, by definition, is “my car”.
The English language doesn’t require you to capitalize your possession bearing adjectives and adverbs while writing sentences, but titles are different once again.
All styles, including the APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Language Association), CMOS (Chicago Manual Of Style, at times, shortened to CMS), and AP (Associated Press) styles require you to capitalize all of your adverbs and adjectives, regardless of their position in a title.
So going back to our initial statement, we had:
“Hello, my Name is Jim”
This now becomes:
“Hello, My Name is Jim”
Which is our finalized version of the title.
Always Leave Your Articles in Lower Case
Articles are words such as the, a, and an, which tell you whether you’re referring to a general or specific object (i.e.the calculator refers to a specific calculator vs. a calculator, which is used to make general statements about calculators).
As a rule of thumb, it’s good to keep in mind that all articles are left in lower case unless they start or end your title.
The Tricky Part of Capitalizing Your title
Now that we’ve covered the broad strokes version of what to capitalize and what to leave in lower case let’s look at parts of speech that have more intricacies involved.
The first area of contention, which most people tend to have trouble with, is prepositions. Prepositions are words that are usually used before pronouns and other nouns to define relations between objects. So when you say someone “arrived after dinner”, or that “they were resting inside the room”, the words after and inside are actually examples of prepositions.
Other examples of prepositions include in, with, within, without, besides, among, around, above, below, across, against, and many more.
Different schools of thought have differing opinions regarding what to capitalize and what to leave in regular case in a title when it comes to prepositions.
Regarding the APA citation style, you’re only supposed to capitalize your longer prepositions (four letters or more) while leaving shorter ones in lower case.
So when you’re dealing with examples such as “A Walk Through the Meadow” you have to capitalize the word “Through”, even though it’s a preposition and it isn’t situated at the beginning or end of your title.
However, if you’re using a shorter preposition, such as in the case of “A Walk in the Park”, the preposition is written in lower case.
The Associated Press Stylebook is similar in that you only capitalize longer prepositions.
Chicago Manual of Style
The Chicago Manual of Style is slightly more difficult to deal with regarding what you should and shouldn’t capitalize.
The general rule is that you should never capitalize any prepositions or conjunctions unless:
- They’re used adverbially or adjectivally
- They’re used as conjunctions
- They call for emphasis or are stressed upon
The first two rules are fairly direct and leave little room for the imagination. If you’re saying”My Clothes are Soaked Through” or “Think It Through“, you’re using the word ‘through’ as an adverb, and it needs to be left capitalized.
Similar is the case above when we talk about “A Walk Through the Meadow”. The word through is being used as an adjective in this example, so it’ll be capitalized once again.
The third rule is a little more ambivalent, so you’ve got room to be creative in the third scenario. After all, what you choose to emphasize or draw the reader’s attention to is entirely up to you as the writer, so you can justify capitalizing prepositions in some cases where they play a critical role in defining the meaning of your title.
The last major style we’ve got to look at is the Modern Language Association style, most commonly used in liberal arts or humanities texts.
MLA advises you to leave all your prepositions in lower case, except when they’re being used as subordinating conjunctions. We’ll cover the specifics of these in the next section.
For now, it’s best to just keep in mind that MLA doesn’t have a word length requirement when it comes to capitalizing prepositions within your title; if you’re dealing with a preposition, leave it in lower case.
There are two kinds of conjunctions in the English Language: subordinating conjunctions and coordinating conjunctions.
Coordinating conjunctions are words that join two individual statements of equal relevance and importance. Think of words like “and” and “or”; when you say you’ll “have either breakfast or lunch”, or when you say that you “intend to visit the barbershop and the tailor”, the order in which you use the noun terms is usually unimportant.
This is because coordinating conjunctions join together two statements of the same grammatical relevance. One statement isn’t a precursor or a prerequisite to the other.
Subordinating conjunctions like “before”, “after”, and “until” are different. If you say”I ate before dusk”, it’s not the same thing as saying “It was dusk before I ate”.
In fact, both statements have mutually exclusive meanings. One says that you ate your meal before a certain time, while the other says that a certain amount of time had passed before you got to eat. Both cannot be true together.
This is the key difference between subordinating and coordinating conjunctions. Subordinating conjunctions combine two statements where one statement is somehow dependent upon the other, either to show one as a necessary consequence of the other or the exact opposite. There’s a lot of overlap between prepositions and subordinating conjunctions, and there’re plenty of words (like all three of our examples up there) that function as both conjunctions and prepositions.
When it comes to the Associated Press Stylebook or the APA Style guide, you’re supposed to never capitalize your conjunctions, regardless of the type, unless they’re more than four letters long.
When it comes to CMOS and MLA, you can only capitalize subordinating conjunctions but never coordinating conjunctions.
Compound or hyphenated words require some handling if you insert them into your titles, but they’re just a few rules you need to be aware of. They’re the same for the Chicago, APA, and MLA style guides, so you don’t have to worry about remembering different rules for each.
To start off, if the compound word consists of two separate individual words that carry meaning, you’ll capitalize both. An example of this is “self-report”, which would be written as “Self-Report” if part of a title.
Secondly, if you’re dealing with a hyphenated word that consists of a prefix and another word, you’ll capitalize just the prefix and leave the actual word in lower case. So the word “anti-inflammatory” would be written as “Anti-inflammatory”. The same also applies to words with a single letter attached as a prefix (such as t-shirt, which would be written as T-shirt).
Finally, if you’re dealing with a compound word that contains prepositions, articles, or coordinating conjunctions, you’ll leave the preposition, article, or coordinating conjunction in lower case while capitalizing the rest of the word as outlined above. So a word such as “holier-than-thou” would be written as “Holier-than-Thou” within a title.
The Final Word
Those are all the rules you need to know when deciding what should and shouldn’t be capitalized in your title. Be sure to be mindful that the rules for sentence cases tend to be very different from title cases, and you’ll be on your way to producing quality content.