Skip to content

Capitalizing Headings and Titles

I was driving west on State Route 520 in Seattle yesterday, when I passed a sign that always drives me nuts. It says "University Of Washington."

I have nothing against the UW. In fact, I am looking forward to teaching a class in the MBA program there in January. What drives me nuts is the Of. It should not be capitalized.

There is a just a tiny bit of disagreement about which words should and shouldn’t be capitalized in titles and headings, but here are rules you can always count on:

  • Always capitalize the first word of a title or heading–no matter what it is.
  • Always capitalize the first word of a subtitle–no matter what it is.
  • Always capitalize the last word of a title–no matter what it is.

The Gregg Reference Manual and The Associated Press Stylebook follow these additional rules, and so do I:

  • Capitalize all words of four or more letters.
  • Capitalize all other words except:
    Articles (a, an, the)
    Conjunctions of less than four letters (and, or, but, nor, yet, so)
    Prepositions of less than four letters (in, to, of, at, by, for, off, on, up)

In slight contrast, The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications renders four-letter prepositions (from, with, etc.) lowercase. And The Chicago Manual of Style and MLA Handbook render all prepositions lower case, even long words such as throughout and around. That approach looks odd to me.

No one capitalizes the word of in the middle of a title, so there is no one defending "University Of Washington."

Would you like to test yourself on the rules above? Capitalize these three titles:

  1. oh, the places you’ll go, by Dr. Seuss
  2. fix it fast, fix it right, by Gene and Katie Hamilton
  3. a funny thing happened on the way to the board room, by Michael Iapoce

Every word except the is capitalized in the Dr. Seuss title.

Every word in the Hamiltons’ book title is capitalized. Capitalize it as a pronoun. (All pronouns are capitalized.)

In Michael Iapoce’s title these words are not capitalized: on, the, to, the.

When I speed by the "University Of Washington" sign, shall I close my eyes rather than look upon the incorrect capital O? No, that too would be a capital offense!

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

4 comments on “Capitalizing Headings and Titles”

  • Excellent post – it will surely inspire and inform my next article! I couldn’t stomach keeping “because” and “throughout” lower case, either. I never thought specifically about pronouns, and I’m still not sure if I agree, but I appreciate be forced to think about it.

  • As a novice writer and a fresh grad from college, I find myself confused at times with the usage of too/to. But don’t get me wrong. I know the rules. What I usually do is I proofread my work at least 3 times specifically when it comes to essay writing since essay is my forte. Trust me, it is a big help to read your work again and again for errors to be seen.

  • Hello and thank you for your time. I seem to over think parallelism very often, and as such I am wondering if this sentence is grammatically accurate:

    “You are required to read each memo before navigating the rest of the website.”

    In order for this to be parallel, should “navigating” be changed to “you navigate” or perhaps more specifically, “you are able to navigate”?

    For example:

    “You are required to read each memo before you are able to navigate the rest of the website.”

    Am i over thinking this?! Thanks for helping me out.

    – James

  • Hello, James. Your original sentence is fine.

    Parallelism requires that like things be structured the same way. Your sentence has two unlike parts: an independent clause (“You are required to read each memo”) and an extended verb phrase (“before navigating the rest of the website”). They don’t have to be parallel.

    Reverse the parts of your sentence, and you may be able to recognize its correctness:

    “Before navigating the rest of the website, you are required to read each memo.”

    I suggest you change “are required to” to “must” for conciseness and simplicity.


Comments are closed.