Capital Letters in Titles


When writing out titles, there are a few capitalization rules you should keep in mind. I do want to point out that a few style guides only require the first word to be capitalized. For most others, these are the basics:

  • Always capitalize the first and last word of a title no matter how insignificant or short.
  • Capitalize all verbs (including be, is, are, was, were), nouns, pronouns, most adverbs, and adjectives. Many grammar books simply call these “significant” or “important words.” If it seems important, it’s probably capitalized.
  • Do not capitalize most short words: coordinating conjunctions (and, or, nor, for, but), articles (a, the), as, to, and most prepositions—unless they’re the first or last word. However, the you-knew-it-was-coming exception is . . .
  • You can (and probably should) capitalize any word that’s six letters or longer (some people say five), no matter what kind of word it is. For example, prepositions such as through and underneath can be capitalized because of their length.
  • Do not capitalize words that have to be lowercase for another reason. The main place you’ll need to know this is with the scientific name of an organism. When writing them out normally, you capitalize the genus and lowercase the species (e.g., Yersinia pestis). Do the same in titles.

As I mentioned, these rules are not universal, though they are common. You should always do some research on what a particular journal, publisher, magazine, or website expects if you’re seeking publication.

Update (9/20/10): I should point out that some style guides recommend not capitalizing be, is, are, was, and were because they are linking verbs. I find this argument to be weak, since other linking verbs are capitalized (for example, seem). However, refer to your style guide for the final determination.

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26 Responses to Capital Letters in Titles

  1. Eunice says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the tips. It’s a great help for me. However, I just would like to ask, what if there’s a phrasal verb in the title, ie a combination of the verb and preposition? Do you capitalize their first letters too?

    • John UpChurch says:

      Hi, Eunice,

      Thanks for writing. With phrasal verbs, you treat the preposition just as you would if it were a preposition standing on its own. The verb phrase requires the preposition to make sense, but as far as a title goes, capitalization depends only on the word under consideration. That is, no matter how the word functions in the title, the word type—when considered by itself and apart from any other words—determines if it’s capitalized or not.

      Thus, you would capitalize like this: “Pile These Books on the Shelf” and “Pile on the Blame.” Pile on is a phrasal verb, but on is treated the same in both titles.

      Hope that helps.

      Thanks,
      John

  2. Sofian says:

    Hi John

    Interesting topics you come up with !

    I felt it needed that I should pick up on what you said about phrasal verb capitalization in titles.

    I know there’re no ironclad rules regarding this subjec but here’s what my research has led me to:

    “Prepositions in a title are not capitalized, unless they are part of a phrasal verb. A phrasal verb is a verb whose meaning is completed by the addition of another word. For example, ‘to give in’, ‘to set up’, or ‘to give up’. In these phrasal verbs, the words ‘in’ and ‘up’ are prepositions. They will be capitalized in a title when used as part of a phrasal verb, but will not be capitalized when used individually as prepositions. For example:

    Driving up the Road (here ‘up’ is lowercased because it is functioning as a preposition)

    Giving Up Smoking (here ‘up’ is capitalized because it is part of the phrasal verb ‘to give up’.”

    Awiting to see what you make of this.

    Cheers from Algeria

  3. John UpChurch says:

    Hi, Sofian,

    Thank you for bringing this up. It’s a good issue to discuss.

    First of all, the caveat to all talk about grammar is that you should always follow the style guide given to you by a particular publisher or company. That trumps everything else. If they prefer the method you mention, then use that.

    However, the problem with capitalizing phrasal verbs is that this can be a gray area (i.e., some can prove challenging to figure out how they function) and because other words often intersect phrasal verbs. For example, you might have, “Give Smoking up by Using Gum.” The split would make the capitalization of up seem odd.

    Here’s another problem: Some phrasal verbs are followed by short prepositions that wouldn’t be capitalized. For example, give in is often followed by to (“give in to the temptation”). If that’s the case, using the method you’ve quoted, in would be capitalized, but not to (not part of the phrasal verb), which is awkward.

    This is why I advocate treating each word by its individual function instead of how it functions in a clause or phrase. That way, the gray areas don’t matter, the disconnects don’t make for awkward capitalization problems, and the exceptions don’t seem so strange.

    Hope that helps.

    John

  4. GenMX says:

    While reading your blog it seems that you research on this topic very much. I must tell you that your blog is very informative and it helps other also..

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  6. bospices says:

    HI! Would the preposition “behind” be capitalized? Other sources say it shouldn’t be, but your rule of 6 letters/more allows it to be capital. THANKS!

    • Much depends upon the particular style guide. It always trumps the “general” rules. But you are certainly justified in capitalizing *behind* in a title because of its length. Thanks for writing.

  7. Appleseed says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for this post; I was having a little confusion about what to capitalize and what not to in titles & you are right: there are many different styles for this.

    Currently I use this site: http://www.titleformatting.com/ to format my titles for me (it automatically applies the rules you mentioned above to properly format titles). Thought others might find this useful.

    – Appleseed

  8. Laura says:

    Wow this was just what I needed, thank you. So in “ice skating” I would capitalize only the “I”? What about “my”? Thank you.

    • Hi, Laura. I’m glad the post is helpful.

      You would capitalize the phrase like this: “Ice Skating.” Both are significant words. As for “my,” it’s a possessive pronoun and should be capitalized.

  9. What about “Butter YOUR Toast”? Would the YOUR start with a capital letter

  10. Laura says:

    And… “Basic Facts ABOUT Animals”?
    Would “about” go capitalized?

  11. Arom says:

    Hi, this was what i wanted.
    but How about “A Young Lady who has a One-track Mind”
    Is it correct?

    • Hi. That’s a bit tricky to answer conclusively. Some style guides suggest capitalizing hyphenated words just like you would if the hyphen weren’t there (“One-Track Mind”), but others say that only the first word in the pair should be capitalized (“One-track Mind”). I would suggest capitalizing both words because this is more common.

  12. Stefano says:

    You just saved me a few hours of searching. Thanks John!

  13. a musicologist says:

    I have a slightly tangential question about capitalizing letters. There’s a convention in musical theater, some communications science disciplines, and other areas of putting titles in all caps. For instance, if you look at a Playbill for a Broadway show, the title of the show (LION KING, PIPPIN, etc) will be in all caps. In other disciplines (for instance, my own field of musicology) suggests putting the title of big works like a musical, opera, or album in italics using the rules of capital letters you outline above while placing the title of smaller works like single songs or individual movements in quotation marks. Do you know anything about the origin of this ALL CAPS tradition?

  14. Istanbul says:

    Can you reply?
    “instead” or “Instead” in titles

  15. Rose Lee says:

    Good information. have More stuff about Use of Capitalization in English quickly to share.

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