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.


Weekend Website: is a convenient place to find an exhaustive list of English idioms, definitions, and how they’re used. After that, you can let the site pronounce the phrase for you—or even translate it into another language. I don’t know how accurate they are, though, since my foreign language skills are a bit rusty.

My only problem with the site is that phrases with two or more meanings are listed as separate entries—instead of being tied together. And there are ads all over the place, which can conveniently be removed by ad blocking software.

But why not give it a whirl?


Episode 66: Seven Ways to Do More with Less

  1. Cut the that: One of the simplest ways to make your writing seem more polished is by cutting out any extraneous that from relative clauses. Relative clauses contain a subject and a verb and begin with a relative pronoun, such as who, whom, whosewhich, or that (the pronoun itself can be the subject), or a relative adverb, such as where, when, or why. For example, “that you know the final score” and “who played violin” are both relative clauses. Most of the time, if there’s another subject besides that, you can cut the that right out. Instead of “I heard that you know the final score,” use “I heard you know the final score.”
  2. Be direct: There are some phrases in English that are big on presence and small on meaning. While they may seem impressive, they actually dilute the sentence. Here are some examples: in order that, for the purpose of, for all intents and purposes. Even in technical or formal writing, these phrases get in the way. There are much simpler ways of saying the same thing: in order that = to, so that; for the purpose of = because, to; for all intents and purposes = [nothing—you can usually cut]. The context dictates what the replacement is.
  3. Zap adverbs with verbs: Not all adverbs are useless. Some can convey a meaning that a verb alone can’t quite capture. But using a more descriptive verb thrusts an image more clearly into the readers mind. “I ran fast across the field” is not nearly as piquant as “I zipped across the field.”
  4. Get words:  The right word can save you three—or more. For example, “spindrift” creates more interest and conveys more meaning than “spray blown from waves during a gale.” Creating word pictures requires reaching into your brain and pulling out the right phrasing from the vocabulary you have. Never stop seeking out new ways to communicate.
  5. Become active: Passive sentences require more words to say the same thing, and they add a layer of disconnect between the reader and the prose. Sometimes passive is unavoidable (and sometimes it’s useful), but active is usually better.
  6. Don’t think: Well, you should think, of course, but don’t tell the reader you are. If you’re writing an opinion piece, the reader knows it’s your opinion. So, there’s no need to say “I think” or “in my opinion.”
  7. Keep it simple: Most of the time, you should avoid present continuous/present progressive verbs. You’ll usually know these by the following format: form of to be (is, are, am) + [verb]ing. For example, avoid “I am hiking” or “he is moonwalking” and stick with the simple present: “I hike” or “he moonwalks.” The same is true with past tense verbs. Eschew “they were traveling” for “they traveled.”

Tuesday Terminology: Enallage

You ain’t got you nary any writing skills until you seen this literary device.

And, no, that’s not bad grammar—it’s enallage. The difference is intent (as with most grammar-defying constructs). I began this post with an obviously incorrect line to grab attention, and that’s the core of today’s term.

  • enallage: intentionally making grammar mistakes for characterization or to create (or use) a catchy statement [Note: There’s a wider definition we won’t discuss here.]

For example, in American culture the phrase “You ain’t seen nothing yet” is well known—and also wrong. But part of what makes it memorable is the brash defiance of the rules. It’s a rebel sentence. Newspapers, magazines, and advertisers often use these (sometimes with excessive quotation marks) to capture the culture or for humor.

As is normal, you should definitely approach this with caution. Some readers don’t like authentic dialect (which is a type of enallage) or an abundance of grammar-bending buzz phrases, as both tend to wear thin with overuse. So, be sure that your use of this device makes sense for the work.

By the way, intentional spelling errors are often considered neologisms or metaplasmus and not enallage. We’ll talk about this later.

For now, hows about yous guys hit me with your favorite enallage?

An Infinitive in Need of a Split

Some rules in English grammar are actually grammar folklore. We accept them; we get graded on them; and they take on iconic status. But they aren’t really as ironclad as they seem.

I already tackled ending a sentence with a preposition. So, today we take on split infinitives.

Most people know how to use infinitives—even if they don’t think about what they’re called. The basic format is to + a base verb:

  • to be
  • to hear
  • to go
  • to listen

Growing up, you may have been told that infinitives cannot be hacked apart. That is, the to has to go right with the verb and nothing shall render it asunder. If you’re like me, you may have even run up against a few red pens when you crossed that line.

But I’m here to free you from the historical misunderstanding. In Latin, an infinitive can’t be split because it’s one word (e.g., amare—to love), and since Latin was once considered a model language, this rule-that-is-not-a-rule crept into English.

English isn’t Latin, however. Oh, sure, there’s Latin in our jumbled language, but there’s no reason to abide by Latin constructs (especially for a German-based tongue). So, don’t feel guilty. Go ahead and use these:

  • to boldly go
  • to never surrender
  • to slowly slip

I do want to caution you, though. If you bump the infinitive apart and squeeze in an adverb (as I did above), some readers will think of it as wrong. The myth is too well engrained to easily be removed.

Also, some infinitive chopping can actually make the phrase confusing:

We need to before the day dawns go to the mountain.

The infinitive to go is so widely split that it’s awkward. The better sentence is this:

We need to go to the mountain before the day dawns.

A word or two between the to and the verb is usually fine. But three or more makes the brain work too much.

Episode 65: What’s in a Paragraph?

Don’t worry—this is not a high school primer. Most people know a paragraph when they see one: a block of text, the first line possibly indented, one main idea explained.

But what’s less known is how to sculpt paragraphs, how to use them to capture and sustain interest. After all, it’s this attention to detail (i.e., “the craft”) that sets apart good writing from almost-there writing.

To show you what I mean, let’s perform a paragraph autopsy to examine the parts. (We’re going to limit this examination to non-dialog, multi-sentence paragraphs.)

  • Topic or main sentence: The first sentence establishes the tone and topic of the rest. Readers tend to remember these sentences more and focus on them.
  • Filler: The middle section is important, but—we’re being honest here—minds tend to wander most often in the middle of paragraphs. Questions pop up. What happened to Rose? Is this related to the article I read yesterday? Did I really have toothpaste on my chin all day?
  • Ending: This is the part that wraps up the thought and keeps the reader engaged by leading to the next paragraph.

Paragraphs function like handholds on a climbing wall. Each paragraph should address some plot element, important point, evidence, character detail, description, etc. In other words, each one builds upon the last to solve the problem that you’ve presented to the reader—whether that’s a mystery or a news report.

Write like each paragraph is important to the overall direction of the prose—because it is.

Here are some tips for crafting better paragraphs:

  • Begin with action or a “big” statement if at all possible. This goes back to the first sentence establishing the rest of the paragraph. Most of the time it’s best not to ease into your point or bury the suspenseful moment in a sea of words. Make the door burst open at the outset—and then explain who’s standing behind it. Tell your readers what poignant fact they need to know and then explain what it means.
  • Keep them short (four sentences or less on average). Long paragraphs look tedious on the page. Readers need breaks and white spaces to keep the prose flowing. There are legitimate reasons for making something long (e.g., to slow down the pace), but keep it rare.
  • Use one-sentence paragraphs on occasion. This used to be an egregious error (and it still is for most formal writing), but a few of these can add drama or make a point stand out.
  • End with something that provokes thought or leaves the reader wanting more. Making every paragraph obey this rule isn’t feasible, but it’s a good goal to shoot for. The more you build interest into the last sentence, the more engaged the audience.

Need the Data

Latin—it’s a language few people know, and yet it messes with so much of our grammar. I’m not advocating that you learn Latin, but you’ll often find that many an English snafu stems from that dusty language.

In Latin, for instance, plural nouns are formed in a variety of fashions. One of those ways involves taking the -um ending and making it an -a ending. Why does this matter? Because there’s one noun in particular that trips up even the best writers.

Here it is: The word data is formally a plural noun. That means these sentences are correct:

The data show that your passing numbers have fallen off.

The data are never wrong.

Personally, I don’t mind data being used in a singular fashion, and the trend is toward the word being both singular and plural. However, for formal works, make sure you keep it plural. For informal works (including most fiction), the rules are much looser.

A few other strange Latin (or Greek) plurals:

  • nebula—nebulae
  • formula—formulae (formulas)
  • rostrum—rostra
  • index—indices
  • axis—axes
  • species—species
  • criterion—criteria
  • radius—radii

Weekend Website: LibriVox

Free audiobooks—that’s the first thing you need to know about LibriVox. The site offers a collection of audio recordings of over 2,000 public domain books and other fare to download to your computer or MP3 player.

What’s the second thing you should know? All of the audiobooks have been recorded by volunteers. This means that the quality can vary greatly—and definitely don’t expect James Earl Jones. But if you don’t like how someone reads your favorite Milton or Keats or chapter in Luke, the site invites you to record your own version to upload.

Many libraries have a good selection of professional recordings to borrow for free (and some allow you to download them as well for a limited time), but this is one of the few places you can find such a wide—and sometimes weird—selection (see for yourself).

Website: LibriVox