Knowing how to properly capitalize the words in a title or heading is a common snag for many writers. Even those with years of experience need to check the rule book every now and then, especially when taking on new clients or writing for a new publication.
In other words, they need to consult their style guide.
For the uninitiated, a style guide is a document that defines a set of rules for writers to follow when they’re authoring material for a brand. It guides the editorial process so that all written works are consistent and accurately reflect the brand’s tone and voice. Style guides can cover everything from what words to use or not use to how to properly write numbers and use punctuation.
And of course — how to capitalize titles.
The Two Approaches to Capitalizing Titles
For most brands, putting together an entire style guide isn’t worth their effort. They have better things to do, like grow their business. Instead, they leverage an existing guide such as AP style or the Chicago Manual of Style. They’ll likely create documentation guiding their brand’s tone and voice, but otherwise, for any questions regarding title capitalization — see the aforementioned style guide.
So, what do these guides say about capitalizing titles?
That depends entirely on the guide. Even the two mentioned above take different approaches to title capitalization. Even in a single guide, the rules aren’t always very clear.
Fortunately for you, taking the time to learn the basics makes things considerably easier when you’re facing down a capitalization conundrum with a hefty style guide. The first step on your journey is looking at the two most commonly used conventions: sentence case and title case.
As you might have inferred, sentence case implies writing the title as you would a sentence. If you know how to write a grammatically correct sentence, you know how to write a title in a sentence case. The only difference is that you don’t use punctuation unless the title in question is, well, a question. Sentence case is popular among bigger news outlets and many online publications. It’s modern and hip.
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Like a sentence sitting in a paragraph, if you use a proper noun in sentence case, you capitalize the appropriate words. Likewise, if you mention things like the names of books or movies, you’ll capitalize them as you would in writing.
Take a look:
- A quick chat with Stephen King
- Why every person should read “Animal Farm”
- Thoughts on living in New York
And that’s all there is to it. If you’re writing with sentence case, your work is done. Otherwise, put your thinking cap on, and let’s start learning about title case.
Title case refers to capitalizing the first word and all major words in the title. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have a feel for title case. Most books you’ve read use it. Even this guide uses it. It’s classy and sophisticated.
So, what constitutes a major word? The consensus is that you should always capitalize nouns in all forms, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. That gives you a pretty long list of words you needn’t concern yourself over.
Have a look:
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- How to Win Friends and Influence People
- How to Care for Aging Dogs
Another area where style guides agree is the capitalization of articles. They’re considered minor words by all, meaning they’re only ever capitalized in two scenarios: when they’re the first word of the title or when they’re part of a proper noun, such as a book or movie.
Take these titles, for example:
- The Old Man and the Sea
- A Guide to Saving the Planet
- The Godfather
So, where does that leave conjunctions and prepositions? Well, this is where the confusion arises. While all style guides agree that only conjunction and prepositions are lowercase in titles, almost none of them agree on which ones. On top of that, some guides have specific rules for certain ones.
For example, in AP style, you only capitalize conjunctions that are four letters or longer. The rest are lowercase. But in Chicago style, there are rules for specific coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions; some are capitalized and others aren’t.
The same goes for prepositions. AP style goes with the same rule — prepositions of three or fewer letters are lowercase — while Chicago style insists all prepositions are lowercase. In other words, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the relevant style guide you’re using for your client.
On Style Guides and Writing Briefs
If you haven’t already done so, now’s a good time to fix in your mind the importance of style guides and client briefs. Any time you’re writing for a new client or publisher, you should consider two things:
- The style guide they’re using, if any
- Any changes they may have outlined in their brief
Trust us, it’s a good habit to have. Even brands that adhere to an outside guide often implement their own changes. Sometimes they prefer all words in their titles capitalized, for example. Understanding what they want upfront reduces any back and forth, which saves you and the client time. It also demonstrates your professionalism, resulting in a happy client. And a happy client means more future work. So a happy writer, too.
Here at Crowd Content, we defer to AP style unless a client requests something different. And while AP style is arguably easier to grasp than Chicago style, it still has its quirks. It’s next to impossible to cover all the different title capitalization oddities across every major style guide, so it’s important to know when and where to look, even if you have access to a nifty little tool that converts your titles for you.
Frequently Asked Questions on Title Case Capitalization
Below are some frequently asked questions to help wrap your head around the nuances of title case. It bears mentioning that for sentence case, all of these questions are answered the same: You only capitalize a word if it’s the first word in the title or part of a proper noun.
Do you capitalize a, an or the in a title?
As articles, these words are only ever capitalized when they begin the title or they’re a part of a proper noun.
Do you capitalize the word in in a title?
Since in is a preposition, you’ll need to check the style guide you’re writing to. For example, in AP style, in is not capitalized, but in Chicago style, it’s capitalized when used in a phrasal verb such as “get in.”
Do you capitalize the word and in a title?
Conjunctions often have specific rules depending on the style guide. In this case, however, all style guides agree: Don’t capitalize the word and.
Do you capitalize the word not in a title?
As an adverb, the word not is capitalized across all style guides.
Do you capitalize the word between in a title?
Since between is a preposition, it’s up for debate. In AP style, it’s capitalized since it’s longer than four letters. In Chicago style, it’s never capitalized.
Do you capitalize the word our in titles?
The pronoun our is, indeed, capitalized according to every major style guide.
Do you capitalize the word is in titles?
It’s a tricky verb, but a verb nonetheless. As such, you capitalize is according to all style guides.
Do you capitalize the second word in a hyphenated title?
Unfortunately, there are no definite answers when it comes to capitalizing hyphenated words. It depends entirely on the style guide and even then, some guides don’t provide clear rules. In AP style, both words are capitalized. In Chicago style, the second word is capitalized only when it’s not an article, preposition or coordinating conjunction.
Keep Your Style Guide Handy
There you have it — everything you ever wanted to know about title capitalization. By now, you should be well-equipped for a life of titular title writing. More importantly, you know how important it is to know what style guide you’re writing to and whether your clients have any particular preferences on the matter. At the end of the day, when you know which tools to turn to, knowing every rule becomes unnecessary.
If you’re a blogger or a brand still in doubt, remember that consistency is more important than any specific style you choose. Google and other search engines couldn’t care less about complicated capitalization rules. Pick a style, stick to it and focus on quality content over everything else.
And speaking of quality and consistency, if you’re a brand that’s looking to take raise your marketing to the next level, we can help. Our platform has thousands of top-tier freelance writers ready to help you grow your brand with powerful, high-quality content — proper title capitalization included. Get in touch with us today to find out more.