Common Title Capitalization Rules

If you familiarize yourself with common title capitalization rules, it will be easier to write articles, papers, and other pieces. Although the capitalization of words in titles can sometimes depend on the particular style of a writer, institution, or publication, there are some general rules to keep in mind.

Common Title Capitalization Rules Common Title Capitalization Rules
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Basic Title Capitalization Guidelines

The rules for capitalization in titles of articles, books, papers, speeches, and other documents can vary according to a particular style guide, such as The Associated Press Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, and MLA Handbook. However, no matter what style guide you use, these rules usually hold true.

Capitalize the First and Last Word

In all three styles, always capitalize the first and last word of any title. These examples will help:

  • How to Land Your Dream Job
  • Of Mice and Men
  • The Cat in the Hat

Capitalize Nouns and Pronouns

You should capitalize nouns and pronouns in titles in all three styles. This includes proper nouns. You can see this rule in action in these examples:

  • Visiting Beautiful Ruins (noun)
  • As She Ran Away (pronoun)
  • Little House on the Prairie (nouns)
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls (pronoun)

Capitalize Verbs and Helping Verbs

No matter which style you are using, you'll also need to capitalize verbs. This includes helping verbs and variations on the verb "to be." These examples will help:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird (verb)
  • The Sun Also Rises (verb)
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God (helping verb and verb)
  • Tender Is the Night (verb)

Capitalize Adjectives and Adverbs

You should also capitalize adjectives and adverbs in all three styles. You can see this rule in action here:

  • All Quiet on the Western Front (adjectives)
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (adjective)
  • She Quietly Waits (adverb)
  • The Poky Little Puppy (adjectives)

Do Not Capitalize Short Prepositions

Each style has its own rules for how long a preposition needs to be if you're going to capitalize it in a title. However, no matter which style you're using, prepositions of three letters or fewer are lowercase unless they are the first or last word in the title. These examples will show you:

  • One Year in Paris
  • The Book of Disquiet
  • A House for Mr. Biswas
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Do Not Capitalize Articles

In all three styles, you should not capitalize articles in the title unless they are the first or last word in the title. Articles include "the," "a," and "an," as you can see here:

  • Through the Looking Glass
  • The Portrait of a Lady
  • The Sense of an Ending

Do Not Capitalize Short Coordinating Conjunctions

Short coordinating conjunctions like "and," "but," "or," "for," or "nor" are lowercase in titles in all three styles. Here are a few examples:

  • War and Peace
  • The Once and Future King
  • Franny and Zooey

Style Guide Differences and Exceptions

While you will find similarities between each guide, it's important to pay attention to their differences. These are the specific rules and special cases you should consider for each style.

AP Stylebook

In the AP Stylebook, all words with three letters or fewer are lowercase in a title. However, if any of those short words are verbs (e.g., "is," "are," "was," "be"), they are capitalized.

Chicago Style

In Chicago style, all prepositions are lowercase unless they are the first or last word of the title. These include the lengthier ones, such as "between," "among," and "throughout."

MLA Style

In MLA style, words with three letters or fewer are always lowercase. The exception here is if they are the first or last word of the title.

What About Sentence Case?

Now that you know the ins and outs of title case, let's take a look at sentence case.

In sentence case, the title is written as if it were a sentence. This is considered a more casual style and is commonly used in newspapers and on the web for headline capitalization. There are a couple reasons why writers choose sentence case over title case:

  • One could argue that capitalized words slow down a reader's ability to scan, while a title written in sentence case could be perceived as having an uninterrupted flow.
  • Some publications prefer this style simply because it's more likely to preserve consistency. With sentence case, there's no nitpicking over the capitalization of a three-letter preposition.
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Capitalize Only the First Word in Sentence Case

In sentence case, only the first word has a capital letter. Consider these examples:

  • Budget wedding invitations
  • Best technology blogs
  • Why you should be drinking more water

Capitalize Proper Nouns in Sentence Case

Ordinary nouns and pronouns are not capitalized in sentence case. However, proper nouns within the title are still capitalized:

  • Top 10 things to do in Paris
  • Hiking at the Grand Canyon
  • Where Tom Cruise spent his summer vacation

Advanced Rules to Note

One of the complexities of the English language is that, for every rule you learn, there's probably an exception. Here are some advanced rules for title capitalization.

Hyphenated Titles

Let's take a look at The Chicago Manual of Style's guidelines for hyphenated words in titles:

  • Capitalize the first element of the hyphenated word.
  • Capitalize subsequent elements unless they are articles, prepositions, or coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor):

    • High-Quality Web Services
    • First-Rate U.S. Lawyers
    • Bed-and-Breakfast Options in Savannah
  • Capitalize the second element in a hyphenated, spelled-out number.

    • Forty-Ninth Street Blues
  • Do not capitalize the second element if the first element is a prefix that could not stand alone by itself (such as anti- or pre-).

    • Anti-inflammatory Dieting
    • Pre-existing Conditions

Open Compounds

An open compound comes to life when a modifying adjective is used in conjunction with a noun. This creates a new noun. Hopefully, warning bells will signal in your mind, as nouns are almost always capitalized.

  • Salad Dressing Recipes
  • The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year
  • Useful Mobile Phone Apps
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First Word Following a Colon

Both Chicago and AP Stylebook guidelines say you should capitalize the first word after a colon in title case:

  • Feminine Poetry: Ten Women Writers from Around the World
  • International Travel: Tips and Advice for Budget Travelers
  • George Washington: The Untold Story

In sentence case, you should capitalize the first word after a colon if it begins an independent clause.

  • I know who you are: You are my friend
  • Jerry can't afford it: He's broke
  • The people have spoken: Raise minimum wage now

In sentence case do not capitalize the first word after a colon if the clause cannot stand alone.

  • I know who you are: nobody
  • Jerry can't afford it: no money
  • The people have spoken: higher minimum wage

Prepositions That Belong to a Phrasal Verb

Prepositions often find themselves on the "do not capitalize" list. However, when a preposition becomes an important part of a phrasal verb, it does need to be capitalized.

  • How to Back Up a Computer
  • Turn Down the Heat to Save You Money
  • Billionaire Pledges to Give Back to His Community

When in Doubt

When you're in doubt and you do not have a reference guide in front of you, here is one general rule recommended by The U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual:

Capitalize all words in titles of publications and documents, except a, an, the, at, by, for, in, of, on, to, up, and, as, but, or, and nor.

Furthermore, no matter your personal preference, make sure you write the exact titles of books, newspapers, journals, and other publications as they are written on the original document (even if they do not follow common capitalization rules).

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Know the Rules

Knowing the general rules for capitalization in titles can help make the writing process easier. Many of these rules also work for headline capitalization in articles as well. Take some time to familiarize yourself with these basic guidelines, and you'll be all set the next time you need to write a bibliography or reference a title in your writing.