Titles of books, movies, and TV shows are conspicuously full of capital letters, but not every word of a title should be capitalized (no matter what iTunes may think). So how do you know which words get the capital treatment and which are business as usual? There are rules, but they can be wobbly, and even the respected Chicago Manual of Style admits they’re arbitrary. Still, most people can agree on a few rules for writing titles, a.k.a. headline style:
1. Capitalize the first and last words.
2. Capitalize everything that isn’t
an article (the, a, an)
to or as
a coordinate conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor)
a preposition (to, from, on, out, of, at, with, into, up, across, after, beside, etc.)
Unfortunately, the preposition rule has a lot of exceptions. Some style guides pick a number of letters—say, three—and capitalize any preposition with more:
- Truck-Stop Dining From Applesauce to Waffles
Others insist all prepositions should be lower case, though this can look weird with long prepositions like concerning.
Another problem with prepositions is their slipperiness. The same words can also be found playing adjectives, adverbs, and subordinate conjunctions, in which case they do need to be capitalized:
- Canoeing up the Volga With Evgeni
- But: Why You Should Never Look Up Old Friends on Facebook
- The Day after Tomorrow
- But: How to Move On After You’ve Had a Bad Perm
(If you decided to use the three-letter rule, after would be capitalized whether it was a preposition or not—a good reason to use this rule and keep your life simple.)
3. When a hyphen changes two words into one (called a hyphenated compound), you should capitalize both words. Or you should only capitalize the first. It’s your choice—pick a rule! And, of course, be consistent.
If you choose not to capitalize the word after the hyphen, there are a few exceptions you need to know. Obviously, words that would normally be capitalized should keep their capital letters, hyphen or no hyphen:
- The Growth of Anti-Peruvianism in Post-Blair Britain
Also, compounds that start with prefixes too feeble to stand on their own as words (such as pre- and anti-) need two capital letters to be taken seriously:
- My thesis is called “Anti-Establishmentarianism in Pre-Revolutionary France.”
4. Don’t tamper with foreign names. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little de should stay lower-case no matter where it may find itself.
Trust your instincts. If something looks weird, change it. Some expert, somewhere, will probably agree with you.
When to Use Headline Style
You’ve mastered headline style and you’re ready to wield it—but on what?
1. Use headline style for the titles of books, movies, TV shows, Web sites, magazines, articles, short stories, poems, plays, songs, paintings, and statues.
- That week’s episode of Magnum, P.I. was called “No Such Thing as Too Hairy.”
- You can learn how many paper clips it would take to circle the Earth on a Web site called Brain-Numbing Factoids.
- Check out “Healing Your Cat With Crystals” in this month’s Feline Fanatic.
- I read “Ode to a Nightingale” in John Keats: The Complete Poems, and it made my nose bleed.
- The Burghers of Calais is Rodin’s heaviest sculpture.
- My life is best illustrated by Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
2. Headings and sub-headings within a document are usually written in headline style (as in this blog), but regular sentence style is also acceptable.
3. Some people use headline style for the numbered parts of a book (e.g., Chapter 3, Appendix C), but sentence style (chapter 3, appendix C) is also correct. Be aware that parts of a book when discussed generally are always lower case:
- The introduction was all right, but I found the third chapter confusing and the index useless.
4. Finally, signs and notices are often written in headline style, unless they’re so long as to look awkward. The same applies to mottoes.
- She flaunted her nonconformity by ignoring the No Smoking signs.
- The sign in the boutique read “Any children left unattended will be given free kittens.”
- They say the state motto of Alabama is At Least We’re Not Mississippi.
It’s true that most grammarians are anal-retentive nitpickers, but capitalizing properly can save your readers from real confusion:
- I can’t get Hair out of my head. (I watch too many musicals.)
- I can’t get hair out of my head. (I will never be bald.)
- I dig earth. (I’m a gardener.)
- I dig Earth. (I grok this planet.)
- I love Dick. (I’m a Nixon supporter.)
- I love dick. (’Nuff said.)