Capitalizing Hyphenated Words in Titles

UPDATED IN JANUARY 2019

In a recent business writing class, a careful editor questioned me about capitalizing up in Business Writing Tune-Up. In a hyphenated compound word, shouldn't a little word like up be lower case?

As is often the case with capitalization, it depends what part of speech up is. In tune-up, up is an adverb (not a preposition such as in "up the street"). 

Adverbs are capitalized in titles–even when they are the last part of a hyphenated compound. I checked four reference books on my shelf, and they all agree about adverbs: The Chicago Manual of Style, Microsoft Manual of Style, The Gregg Reference Manual, and Garner's Modern English Usage. (The Associated Press Stylebook only says to capitalize "principal words"–it offers no additional details to cover adverbs.) 

Chicago, Microsoft, and Gregg specifically address hyphenated compounds. 

The Chicago Manual of Style has simplified its capitalization rules in its most recent (17th) edition. For hyphenated compounds, it recommends:

  1. Always capitalize the first element.
  2. Capitalize any subsequent elements unless they are articles, prepositions, coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor), or such modifiers as flat or sharp following musical key symbols. [Chicago used to consider whether parts of a hyphenated word were stressed or unstressed to determine capitalization.]
  3. If the first element is merely a prefix or combining form that could not stand by itself as a word (anti, pre, etc.), do not capitalize the second element unless it is a proper noun or proper adjective. [Chicago gives as an example Anti-intellectual Pursuits.]
  4. Capitalize the second element in a hyphenated spelled-out number (twenty-one or twenty-first, etc.) or hyphenated simple fractions (two-thirds in two-thirds majority). [Chicago used to render the second elements lower case.]

Microsoft Manual of Style and The Gregg Reference Manual agree with Chicago–with these exceptions:

  • Chicago capitalizes no prepositions of any length except when "they are used adverbially or adjectivally" or when "they compose part of a Latin expression used adjectivally or adverbially." Microsoft capitalizes prepositions that are five or more letters. Gregg capitalizes prepositions (and conjunctions) of four or more letters. 
  • Microsoft and Gregg do not follow Rule 3 above. They would both capitalize all words in Anti-Intellectual Pursuits. 
  • Microsoft and Gregg would capitalize flat and sharp if they appeared in a title (unlike Rule 2). 

Beyond that, all three capitalize the first and last word of a title. 

Considering those rules, these hyphenated words would all be correctly capitalized in titles:

Follow-Up
Runner-Up
Close-Up
Start-Up
Shoo-In
Run-In
Trade-In
Walk-In 
Turn-On
Take-Off
Write-Off 
Phase-Out 

In the list above, up, in, on, off, and out are adverbs–not prepositions. That's why they are capitalized. (Note: If they were prepositions, they would lead to a noun or a pronoun, as in "A Song in My Head" or "I Heard It on the Radio.")

Also following the rules above, these examples would all be capitalized in titles: 

Twenty-First-Century
Two-Thirds Majority
Non-English-Speaking
Self-Sustaining
Record-Breaking
Run-Time 
Upper-Class

When I typed Upper-Class, I instantly thought about well-to-do and wondered how I would capitalize it in a title. How would you capitalize well-to-do?

 

I've illustrated my decision in this made-up title: "Well-to-Do Not Doing So Well." Chicago guided me with its rule: "Lowercase to not only as a preposition but also as part of an infinitive (to Run, to Hide, etc.)."

 

If you had not already recognized the value of a style sheet, these examples make a strong case for creating one. No more stressing over which hyphenated words should be capitalized in a title! Just stress once, decide, and record your decision.

I hope this review was helpful. Next question?

Lynn
Syntax Training

12 COMMENTS

  1. This is something I’ve wondered about, and it’s good to know what the various reference manuals say. Thanks for saving me the work of looking them all up! Our style generally goes to using capitals in hyphenated words because it looks better in headings. However, I also think CMOS is so sensible when they advise breaking rules if something doesn’t look right (I love their monthly FAQs – grammar and humor together!).

  2. I also love CMOS’s advice to break a rule that doesn’t work. In my opinion, it’s better for text to flow well and to look and sound correct to the majority of people than to be technically correct, but appear strange or stilted.

  3. How timely is this? I was just reviewing a letter and noticed that in one place they had put Co-Chair and in another Co-chair and I wasn’t sure which one was right, but I did know that whatever it was, it should be consistent throughout the letter.

    After reading this post, I like the Gregg answer and will change it to Co-Chair.

    Thanks as usual,

    Patricia

  4. Hi, Val, Stephanie, and Patricia.
    Thanks for commenting on the niceties of business writing!

    Patricia, I am glad you brought up “Co-Chair.” Based on the rules I reviewed, I believe all three manuals would capitalize both parts in a title.

    Lynn

  5. Holy Hyphen, Batman!

    Er, I mean Mrs. Gaertner-Johnston. You were my high school English teacher. I did a Google search on capitalizing hyphenated words and your website came up.

    I’m a government Technical Writer (don’t worry, not the IRS) and you answered my question.

    I thank you and your country thanks you.

    Bob C.

  6. Hi, Bob. You brought me a big laugh–thank you!

    Don’t tell anyone our secrets from back in the Stone Age.

    I am glad to know you are still a writer.

    Warm wishes,

    Mrs. Gaertner-Johnston
    Your High School English Teacher

  7. I’ll get on a small soap box: in ancient times, you decided whether to capitalize on factors other than the number of letters in a word (e.g. part of speech, proper noun). Counting letters seems so distasteful: “by” and “near” are categorized differently by Gregg. Um… yucc.

  8. Hi, Tom. I agree that the letter-counting approach feels arbitrary. Yet I prefer it to having long prepositions such as “throughout” and “between” lower case.

    Thanks for soapboxing for us.

    Lynn

  9. Hello, any idea if subordinating conjunctions in a hyphenated compound word should be capitalized in a title? Should it be “Better-than-Original Quality” or “Better-Than-Original Quality”? Thanks!

  10. Hello, can you tell me what AP Style’s view is on hyphenating the second word in a hyphenated word, particularly in a heading?

    Thank you,

Comments are closed.