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Capitalizing Words in Titles

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QUESTION:
Benjamin in France wants to know what the rules are for capitalizing words in titles.

ANSWER:
This is not an easy question to answer because the major style guides (written rules for using a language) disagree.

First, it may be helpful to distinguish between capitalizing words and putting words in caps.  To capitalize a word is to make the first letter of a word a capital letter, for example:  “Los Angeles,” “Kathy Griffin,” and “Alice’s Restaurant.”  To put a word in caps is for all letters of the word to be written in capital letters, for example:  “LOS ANGELES.”

You may have noticed, as Benjamin has, that titles in English don’t always capitalize every word.  Titles of anything–books, films, songs, plays, television shows, and many other things–always capitalize the first word.  After that, the rules get more murky (unclear) and it’s the little words that style guides disagree on.

According to one popular style manual, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, this is the rule:
“Capitalize the first and last words of the title and all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (if, because, as, that, etc.).”
=> This would mean capitalizing most of the words.

According to another popular style manual, The Chicago Manual of Style:
“…articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor), and prepositions, regardless of length, are lowercased (not capitalized) unless they are the first or last word of the title.”
=> This would mean that many of the little, less important words would not be capitalized.

A third source, The Associated Press Stylebook, has these rules:

  • Capitalize the principal (most important) words, including prepositions and conjunctions of four or more letters.
  • Capitalize an article–the, a, an–or words of fewer than four letters if it is the first or last word in a title.

=> This would mean that the length of the word determines whether little words are capitalized or not.

Do you have a headache?  I do, too.  The general advice is to pick one set of rules–one style manual–and stick with (follow) it. I know that this isn’t a very satisfying and definitive (authoritative; certain) answer, but if it makes you feel any better, this is a question that many native speakers struggle with, too.

~ Lucy

5 Responses to “Capitalizing Words in Titles”

  1. Peter Says:

    Thanks lucy ,

    Please correct me if I am wrong . I guess here in North America most university profs ask students to follow The Chicago Manual of Style. In fact ,back in school ,if we did other style we were marked down,our profs were very stickler for that. we studied all these styles and maybe a few more at college, but we were required to apply The Chicago Manual of Style for our essays and reports. I don’t know maybe things are different in The USA.

  2. Fernando-Brasilia-Brazil Says:

    Hi everyne,i am a english studant and now i know what means Capitalizing Words and words IN CAP.Living and learning.Bye.

  3. Lúcio Otávio - Brasil Says:

    Well, first i would like say…or write…that is amazing the way how my english become better by listening ESLpod. I would like give congratulations Jeff and Lucy by the PERFECT work with the podcast and blog. I am a undrgraduate student and i can say that the rules for captalize words in titles in english are a little similar to portuguese rules for this subject. Sumarizing: a little confuse too… Just kiding…

  4. emiliano Says:

    Yes Lucy, at the time you mentioned it I have headache and I was lost too.

    May be it is a little complicated and now even more as having so much writting by mail, internet, and so on, it is as an habit not capitalizing any words at least to me.

    Of course it is a bad habit, but it is so easy and democratic not to capitalizing the usual words suposed to be that form that some times I don´t capitalize even the nouns of persons or cities what it is a great mistake, I’m sorry about it.

    What I like about your country and their people Lucy is that you don’t change the names of cities, places, or other things.
    They have same names from the beginning till now despite the different lenguages (French, German, Spanish, etc. ) and you have not any idea of changing them to your own lenguage.

    To me is quite a good way of keeping the scent of a nation’s history.

  5. emiliano Says:

    Reading again the post and thinking about it a little more what I have to say by all means is that usually I do what I want about tittles. Sometimes I do write all the words in capitals if I want to remark the tittle quite well, other times may be only the first letter and of course the not common nouns of the phrase.

    I think also that if the phrase is short (like Alice´s Restaurant) looks nice that way, capitalizing the first and
    the last word.

    As a matter of fact I have to say that don’t know if there is any rule in my own lenguage, actually I don’t care but I have to just from now.

    The post is quite interesting if we think carefully about the matter, so I am going to see what I do the moment I write a tittle in future knowing that there must be some rules I don’t know either…what a problem I have from now if I want to write tittles according with the rules.

    Thank you Lucy, my headache has gone already. Definitive I Need Much More English Every Day.