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Monday, April 6, 2009

Which Words to Capitalize in a Title

As if it’s not difficult enough coming up with a relevant, attention-grabbing title that stops readers in their tracks, figuring out how to format it is another hurdle altogether. Part of what makes this task so difficult is that there is no universally recognized standard for choosing which words in a title should be capitalized.

Pick up two different newspapers and you’ll see we don’t even have a national standard for titles.

Just look at the following examples:
“Obama Says U.S. Is Not at War With Islam” (The New York Times)
“Boeing would be hit hard by defense cuts” (The Seattle Times)
This lack of an all-encompassing standard leaves you with the following two options:

1) Choose a Style Used Commonly by Others

There are only so many generally accepted ways you can capitalize titles. In fact, I’d say the following 4 possibilities are all that are available in common usage.
  • Capitalize The First Letter Of Each Word In The Title
  • Capitalize only the first word in the title
  • Capitalize Principal Words and Words Longer Than Three Letters in the Title

Choose whichever of the above options you like and title away! The choice itself isn't important. What's important is staying consistent with whatever format you do choose.

2) Capitalize Titles According to a Specific Citation Style

If you're still in academia, then this option is the one for you. Depending on the class, chances are your instructor is expecting your writing to conform to a particular style guide. In general, classes that are considered part of the liberal arts use MLA style while classes that are considered part of the sciences use APA style.

MLA Style Guidelines
  • Capitalize the first, last, and principal words of the title (including those that follow hyphens in compound words)
  • Do not underline the title or put it in quotation marks (unless your title includes the title of another work that must be placed in quotation marks or underlined)
Principal words include: Nouns, Pronouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Adverbs, and Coordinating Conjunctions.

That's all there is to it! Now you can title your essays, secure in the knowledge that you are conforming to the accepted standard.

Photo credit: Observe the Banana


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