July 2011: I no longer use title case style or headline style (the capitalization standard of capitalizing most words in titles of blog posts) in most of my writing. The more internationally flavored sentence-style case makes more logical sense to me, and it’s also easier to read; detailed update coming soon…
August 2011: In order to show that it really IS acceptable to use sentence case capitalization standards in the U.S. (as opposed to the usual title case or headline case), I have decided to make a note of reputable websites which follow sentence case rules. I ran across my first example, the official MIT site, while researching an update about scientific video gaming.
Thursday, February 03, 2011
Seemingly trivial issues that might bore some segments of the population are actually topics of debate in the realm of writing. One such subject is capitalization.
What are the well-established, generally accepted rules of capitalization for titles, and section headings, and headlines?
There is no single, correct answer.
There are different rules for different countries, different kinds of writing, etc. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is first and foremost a reference for manuscripts that will be later published as books.
Guidelines for research papers are not always the same as for other writings, and some of the reasons are practical. Master’s theses and other research papers are built on a foundation of citations, references, and notes, and the generally accepted guidelines reflect this.
The recommended guidelines and rules for capitalizing titles vary. In reality, for a given situation, the rule that is applied in the end depends on which style guide is favored by the chief editor! Popular writing style guides include the Associated Press Stylebook (AP), Chicago Manual of Style, and Modern Language Association (MLA) style.
In fact, there are really only two rules of title capitalization that are consistent across the board:
- Capitalize the first word of the title
- Capitalize all proper nouns
General capitalization rules
There are several general rules that are typically applied for capitalizing titles.
Capitalize the first, last, and any important words in a title, which is known as Title Case or Headline Style.
Title case (a.k.a. headline style)
Capitalized: first and last words of title or headline, all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (if, because, as, that, etc.)
Not capitalized: articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor), and prepositions, regardless of length (a name=”sentence-style-case”>
Sentence-style case in headlines has two great practical advantages:
- It preserves the distinction that proper nouns (names) get from being capitalized (a “god” versus the Bible “God”)
- It is easy to understand and agree upon
Valuable information would be destroyed if we followed the practice of many U.S. publishers, who tend to capitalize virtually every word in a heading. Capitalizing additional words in a title tends to create ambiguity.
“European union leaders” means “the leaders of some trade/labor/etc. unions in Europe”;
“European Union leaders” means “the leaders of the organization named ‘European Union'”.
Applying the title case method, as in “European Union Leaders”, destroys this semantically important distinction – especially in headings, where it is customary to drop the determiners that could preserve at least part of the distinction.
Other rules for capital letters in titles, headlines
- German method: Capitalizing only the nouns in the headline
- Capitalizing every single word in the title or headline
Major writing style guides
Other writing style guides
(Ed. – this paragraph is outdated.) I am very accustomed to using the headline style; any reader can tell by looking at the title of this post, the section headings I have used within this blog post, for the sections of links on the right side of this website, or the titles of the other recent posts on this blog (listed on the right under “Recently Added”).
While I have always used the title case rule, I am going to switch to sentence style case for my titles and headlines – starting with this very blog post.
Of course, it is not acceptable to use all capital letters (ALL CAPS) in a title or headline (or anything else, really – unless you want to send a strong noob/newb vibe).
Conclusion: Best capitalization rule for titles, headers
Depending what country you‘re in and what type of paper it is, any of these widely used methods are acceptable. What’s most important is to choose the most appropriate method to use under the given circumstances — and then stick with it.
Postscript: I switched sides! These days, I strongly favor using sentence case standards in the capitalization of my titles. The only downside to this change is that my writing is no longer 100% consistent in its capitalization of titles (blog post titles, section titles within the posts, etc.), but I’m not too worried about that right now.
Thanks for reading this post – and please don’t be afraid to go ahead and make the cap rule change from the typical title case to the more logical, intuitive, internationally flavored sentence case. It makes sense!
Please drop us a line (by making a comment below) and let us know if you’ve been dwelling on this. (Does anyone else think about this stuff?!)
Who uses sentence-case capitalization rules?
Resources: Capitalization of headings and titles
- Capitalization of Headings and Titles – Technical Communicators’ Forum
- Wikipedia’s own manual of style
- Rules for capitalization in titles – Daily Writing Tips
- Doc Scribe’s guides to research style
- Doc Scribe’s guides to Chicago Manual of Style
- Rules for capitalization in titles – Your Dictionary
Resources: Types of writing styles
- Research paper writing styles
- Guide for Writing Research Papers – MLA
- Guide for Writing Research Papers – APA
- A Guide to Today’s Top Five Writing Style Guides – WinePressofWords.com