Words to Capitalize in Titles and Headings

Lately I have been seeing a lot of odd capitalization in titles, headings on websites, and subject lines. So I would like to be helpful and provide some easy rules.

Here is what to capitalize:

  1. All words of four or more letters, no matter what or where the words are (more on this rule later)
  2. The first word of the title and of the subtitle
  3. The last word of the title
  4. ALL OTHER WORDS except conjunctions (and, or, but, nor, yet, so, for), articles (a, an, the), and short prepositions (in, to, of, at, by, up, for, off, on).

That's it. Those are the simple rules I follow, and The Gregg Reference Manual backs me up.

Not all reference manuals agree with Gregg, however. Other manuals make the rules a bit more complex.

The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications does not capitalize four-letter prepositions. The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago) and The MLA Handbook don't capitalize any prepositions–unless, for all three manuals, the word fits in category 2 or 3 above. So if you want to follow the rules of those guides, you need to recognize prepositions such as with, from, between, around, and through to know whether to capitalize them.

I prefer the simplicity of my way–that is, Gregg's way.

I grabbed a few books off my shelf so you can test yourself. Decide what to capitalize in these titles:

  1. made to stick: why some ideas survive and others die
  2. the story factor: inspiration, influence, and persuasion through the art of storytelling
  3. fierce conversations: achieving success at work and in life, one conversation at a time
  4. a funny thing happened on the way to the boardroom: using humor in business speaking

Remember, first you can capitalize any word of four or more letters, if you follow my style. Then capitalize the first word of the title and the subtitle, and the last word of the title. Then you have to think about whether the remaining short words are conjunctions, articles, or prepositions. If they are, they are lower case.

Okay, here goes:

  1. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (to is a short preposition; and is a conjunction)
  2. The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling (Chicago would leave through lowercase as a preposition)
  3. Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time (one is capitalized because it is an adjective)
  4. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Boardroom: Using Humor in Business Speaking

The most common errors I see are with short words that are not conjunctions, articles, or prepositions. Words such as one, it, its, it's, him, and own should all be capitalized no matter where they appear in a title.

Well, I have done My Good Deed for today. I hope you found the review helpful.

Lynn
Syntax Training

22 COMMENTS

  1. This is a much better approach than that of my friend who told me that he looks at the song titles on the back of his CD’s to remind him what to capitalize.

  2. Thank you. This is a straightforward approach. I have noticed when editing academic research papers that they do not capitalize the sub heading (after the colon) in their references. Is this a standard academic practice or simply an error?

  3. Hi, Penny. American Psychological Association style calls for “sentence case” in titles in the reference lists you mention, except for journal titles, which use “title case.” That sounds like what you’re seeing.

    Lynn, I’m curious about your take on sentences as headings. Would you use “title case” or “sentence case”? (Or simply avoid sentences as headings.) Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Lester, thank you for responding to Penny. I would have had to research an answer.

    For headings, I believe both sentence case and title case can work fine. One just has to choose a style and stick to it.

    Sentences, especially questions, can be perfect headings.

    My purpose in writing this blog entry was to help people who don’t know which words to capitalize when they choose title case.

    As always, I appreciate your input.

    Lynn

  5. Good advice, but I’d add this: In legal briefs, the argument section often includes sub-headings that are free-standing sentences. If your heading is a sentence, capitalize only the words you would capitalize in any sentence: the first word and any proper nouns. (And please punctuate it as you would any sentence.)

  6. Lynn,
    Thanks for the great post – your examples were very helpful.
    I was just wondering about the capitalization rules for my own newsletter articles –
    **5 FAQ About Using Eye Contact
    **How to Cut out Your Filler Words
    Your post came at the perfect time!
    Gilda

  7. Very good Lynn,

    It’s really very useful post.

    Please see the following example and check that I’ve capitalized correctly. (I’m gonna use it as tag line for my blog)

    What is Happening with me Out to the World.

    Thanks

  8. Hi, Jean, Ray, Gilda, and Waqas. Thanks for your comments. I have been away for the weekend. Sorry for the delay in responding.

    Hi, Jean. I am glad these rules were helpful to you and Harry.

    Ray, great to hear from you! It has been awhile. Thanks for your advice on sub-headings in legal briefs. Let me add to your comment adjectives formed from proper nouns. Words such as “American” and “Cuban” should be capitalized even when they are adjectives. That may be obvious, but I thought I would add the clarification. Again, thank you!

    Hi, Gilda. Your first title is fine. Your second example should be “How to Cut Out Your Filler Words.” “Out” is an adverb in your example (not a preposition) and should be capitalized.

    Hi, Waqas. If you follow my guidelines, you have three more words to capitalize: “Is” (a verb), “With” (a word of four or more letters), and “Me” (a pronoun). Please review the rules to see if you agree with me.

    Thanks to all!

    Lynn

  9. Lynn
    Would you agree that writing for the web might have its own grammar and capitalization rules?

    If you know of a good book for web-specific writing guidelines, I’d be interested in your recommendation.

    I would not agree that title case is best for tag lines, for instance.

    Sentence case faster to read than title case.

    When designing a website header, for example, reading ease has primary importance. People skim. So I’d argue that whatever’s easiest to understand at a glance should guide tag line capitalization.

    Another person who suggests web writing might have its own rules is Jakob Nielsen. He suggests using digits in web copy, like 3 for example, rather than spelling out the word three, which is more gramatically correct. The digits perform a lot better in his testing.

    Would you think a tagline was presented incorrectly if you saw it displayed using title case?

  10. Hi, Joanne. Thank you for your interesting question.

    I agree with you that title case is not the best choice for taglines–they are to be read as lines, not titles. That is why, like you, I prefer using sentence case for taglines–that is, capitalizing them as I would a sentence.

    There are examples of sentence case in headings on this site: “Talk, tips, and best picks for writers on the job” and “Coach employees to write better.”

    The purpose of this post was to help people recognize what to capitalize when they are using title case. I will follow up with another post to elaborate on your question.

    Lynn

  11. Hi Lynn,

    I run a business that has a slogan, “We Succeed when You Succeed.”

    I was recently told that the article I wrote about my company might want to be written like this:

    Resume Design Service: We Succeed When You Succeed

    I’ve heard that “when” is one of the trickiest words out there. What are your thoughts on this?

    How about the word “with.” Do you think that is a word that should be capitalized?

    I also wrote an article titled:

    God Wants Us Focused on Hillary Clinton

    I felt it would be appropriate to make it so the two-letter word “Us” is capitalized, because “us” is a pronoun, which I believe is always supposed to be capitalized, right?

    How about the word “on” in that title with Hillary Clinton? The word “on” is tricky because it can act in multiple ways. It can be used as a preposition, adverb, and adjective, but overall is classified as a function. Am I correct on that? Is this why “on” should not be capitalized here? Or should it be capitalized because it works as an adverb in relation with the word “focused?”

    By the way, in my last paragraph, see how it ends with a question mark in the quotation marks. Every once in a great while that happens and it always confuses me. The way I currently understand things, there is no need for a period to be placed the end of that sentence after the quotation mark. Right? It is just sort of understood that the sentence automatically came to an end. Right?

    One other quick question. The word “etcetera” abbreviated as “etc” is tricky because there appears to be debate about how many periods need to be used in various spots.

    For example, it seems like it is alright to use one period after “etc.” in the middle of the sentence. But things get tricky at the end of the sentence. Are you supposed to end a sentence describing your skills like this:

    Lynn is great as a writer in business, fiction, helping people, etc.

    or

    Lynn is great as a writer in business, fiction, helping people, etc..

    OR

    should there actually be three periods at the end, as a law website suggested. I actually did read online the rules differ for lawyers because they write a term “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera,” often. Is that true?

    Please forgive my questions that are different from Titles. But I did a lot of research on the other stuff and still couldn’t find the answers.

    I’m sorry our language system is so logical except on certain points. 🙂

    Thank you,

    Michael
    michaelzoran@hotmail.com

    You can also feel free to take a look at my blog here:

    http://www.controversy.typepad.com

  12. Hi, Michael. I am afraid I don’t have unlimited time to answer questions. I will limit this response to your questions about capitalization in titles.

    If you follow the style I recommend above, you will capital “when” because it is a four-letter word. The same is true of “with.”

    “On” is lower case because you are using it as a preposition in the phrase “on Hillary Clinton.” “Us” is always capitalized as a pronoun.

    I recommend that you get yourself an up-to-date style manual, since it is clear that you find language intriguing. Such a guide will help you with your blog and your resume service.

    The Recommended Books page on my website (syntaxtraining.com) has a list of books to choose from.

    Good luck!

    Lynn

  13. Hi Lynn!

    Thank you very much for helping me out!

    I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions.

    I wish I lived close to you. I would gladly want to attend your lesson where you have 12 students at a time.

    The bad thing is I have epilepsy so I really have no chance of attending anything like that.

    Is there any idea how much you sell your DVD and other books to someone unable to attend the room that you will personally teach?

    Thank you again. 🙂

    Your friend,
    Michael

  14. Hi Lynn,

    I am happy that you are out there to help everybody by making writing rules simple. I always look up your site for tips!

    Thank you,
    Prabha

  15. Hi Lynn:
    Do I need to capitalize “that” in the following title:
    “Financial Markets are Efficient in That* They Disseminate Information to Accurately Reflect the Fair Market Value of Securities.

    I will highly appreciate your cooperation.

    Thnak you.
    Clemontine

  16. Am I supposed to capitalize a person’s title at work such as Lisa Renbig, Financial Planner. Or the administrative assistant position has been filled. Or, I am applying for the administrative assistant position.

  17. Patty, it is a question of company style. You do not need to capitalize a title unless it comes directly before a name (example: Board Chairman Robert Burke). However, many companies do capitalize job titles.

    I would probably capitalize “Financial Planner” the way you used it, depending on the context. I would not capitalize “administrative assistant” in your examples.

    You do, of course, capitalize a person’s title when typing an address.

    Lynn

Comments are closed.