Monday 12 December 2016

How to Capitalize Titles

The rules for capitalizing titles are collectively known as headline style, which is used not only for titles of works (books, movies, songs, etc.) but also for headlines and subheadings. Mastering this style isn’t so much a matter of learning what words to capitalize as learning what words not to capitalize.

Krampus postcard
Flying Monsters: A History

Headline Style: The Basics

Not all publications use headline style; some use sentence style, in which only the first letter is capitalized. Others say “the hell with it” and capitalize every single word, no matter what it is (Buzzfeed, I’m looking at you). But most editors follow the rules laid out in The Chicago Manual of Style.

Chicago recommends capitalizing all the important words: nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs. They also capitalize the first and last words of both title and subtitle. 

  • Flying Monsters: A History

What Not to Capitalize in Headline Style

Articlesthe, a, and an—should be lowercase. Unless, of course, they’re the first or last words of the title or subtitle, like A in the example above.

Chicago uses lowercase for all prepositions, no matter how long; however, many editors capitalize prepositions of more than a certain number of letters.

Conjunctions, such as and, but, or, and nor, are lowercase.

To is lowercase when it’s part of an infinitive verb (How to Twerk).

As is always lowercase.

• Bits of foreign names like de and von, if they’re lowercase in the original spelling, are lowercase in titles (The von Trapp Family Singers).

frog crime postcard
Unconscious Robber Comes To and Flees

When to Capitalize Prepositions

Here’s where it gets tricky: the same word can perform different roles, some of which are capitalized and some of which are not. To, for example, can be a preposition (Come to Our Krampus Party!), part of an infinitive (I Have Come to Mourn My Wasted Youth), or part of a phrasal verb (Unconscious Robber Comes To and Flees).

Phrasal verbs (like come to) happen when a verb + preposition(s) forms a kind of unit, one whose meaning is distinct from what its words mean separately. Other examples of phrasal verbs are turn down, put off, hang out, put up with, and sit in for. These prepositions have been transmogrified into (parts of) verbs, so they get capitalized in headline style.

  • Timothy Leary titled his spoken-word album Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.
  • In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant dons a negligee.

Prepositions are also capitalized when they serve as adjectives.

  • Push the On Button
  • No Running up the Down Escalator

Prepositions in Latin phrases like in vitro and per capita are treated the same as English prepositions: they’re lowercase except when the phrase functions as an adjective or adverb.

  • Fertilization in Vitro but About In Vitro Fertilization
  • Clowns per Capita but Measuring Per Capita Clownage

Participles, you may recall, are verb forms ending in –ing or –ed. Some of them may act as prepositions, such as including, regarding, given, and based on. In that case, Chicago doesn’t capitalize them.

  • Four Theories concerning the Gospel according to Matthew

However, lots of editors think this looks clunky and choose to capitalize prepositions over a certain number of letters (usually three or four). This policy has the bonus of cutting down the number of words you need to agonize over. Is around being an adverb or a preposition? Who cares! It’s six letters, so cap that puppy!

  • Four Theories Concerning the Gospel According to Matthew
  • Haberdashery Around the World

Bashi-Bazouk by Jean-Leon Gerome
Haberdashery Around the World

When a Conjunction Is Not a Conjunction

Conjunctions, as you might remember, join two clauses to form a sentence. So and yet are conjunctions—except when they’re adverbs.

  • Darkness Has Prevailed, yet All Is Not Lost but We Have Not Yet Begun to Fight
  • You’re Annoying so I Left but You’re So Vain

Whenever a word is being discussed as a word, it’s functioning as a noun, and is therefore capitalized.

  • On the Abbreviations of “And” and “In” in Text Messages
  • No Ifs, Ands, or Buts!

Capitalizing Hyphenated Words

Should you capitalize both words in half-baked? What about post-coital?

Chicago capitalizes both parts of compound words, except when the first part is only a prefix—something that can’t stand alone—in which case the second part is lowercase.

  • Half-Baked Brownies: Cooking with Low-THC Marijuana
  • Le Petit Mort: A Study of Post-coital Lassitude
  • Hacking Government E-mails for Fun and Profit

Other publications capitalize only the first part of a compound—except, obviously, in the case of proper nouns (Ali, French, Google), which are always capitalized.

  • Half-baked Brownies: Cooking with Low-THC Marijuana
  • An Exhibition of Anti-Soviet Propaganda from World War II
  • Post-Freudian Dream Interpretation

If a hyphenated phrase contains a word that would normally be lowercase, like an article or a preposition, keep it lowercase.

  • The Out-of-Work Actors’ Fund
  • Dyed-in-the-Wool Marxist Refuses Knighthood

The Bogey-Owl by P. Burne-Jones
Post-Freudian Dream Interpretation

Knowing headline style isn’t useful only for bibliographers; it’s an indispensable skill for any writer. You need it to write the name of your favourite song (“These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ”), the TV show you’re currently obsessed with (Game of Thrones), or the work of art that best sums up this year (Edvard Munch’s The Scream). You’ll probably use it in the titles of your blog posts and the subheadings on your website (see above). And you’ll find it handy should you ever need to quote a sign (Beware of Dog) or a motto (Keep Calm and Carry On). Headline style’s somewhat arbitrary rules may vary, but be consistent and you won’t go wrong.


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