Rules for Capitalization in Titles

I used to think there were only two ways to use capitalization in a title: (1) Capitalize only the first word in the title (except for proper nouns), which I learned working for a local newspaper; and (2) Capitalize the principal and longer words and lowercase the minor, shorter words, which I learned was wrong.
I also came to learn that the rules for capitalization in titles—like the rules for other areas of English grammar—are not set in stone; style guides and grammarians disagree on which words to capitalize in a title.
In fact, there are really only two rules that are consistent across the board:
  • Capitalize the first word of the title
  • Capitalize all proper nouns
Sentence case, or down style, is one method, preferred by many print and online publications and recommended by the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. The only two rules are the two rules mentioned above: Capitalize the first word and all proper nouns. Everything else is in lowercase. For example:
Why it’s never too late to learn grammar (all words lowercased except “Why”—first word in title)
Another method is to capitalize all words in a title. This one is considered simple because there’s no struggle trying to remember which words to capitalize and which ones to lowercase; they’re all capitalized. However, one could argue it’s the lazy man’s method or that it’s not very aesthetic. For example:
Why It’s Never Too Late To Learn Grammar (all words capitalized)
Title case, or up style, is another method. Whether or not you capitalize a word in a title depends on its part of speech. According to most style guides that use title case, the basic rules are as follows:
  • Capitalize the first and last word in a title, regardless of part of speech
  • Capitalize all nouns (baby, country, picture), pronouns (you, she, it), verbs (walk, think, dream), adjectives (sweet, large, perfect), adverbs (immediately, quietly), and subordinating conjunctions (as, because, although)
  • Lowercase “to” as part of an infinitive
  • Lowercase all articles (a, the), prepositions (to, at, in, with), and coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or)
For example:
Why It’s Never Too Late to Learn Grammar (all words capitalized except “to,” a preposition)
That last rule for title case is upheld by some style guides, but not all. The Chicago Manual of Style follows that rule (except in cases in which an article, preposition, or coordinating conjunction is the first or last word in a title). However, The Associated Press would have you capitalize prepositions and conjunctions if they are four or more letters long. For others, the magic number is five rather than four. So, according to some guides, you have to worry not only about the part of speech, but also about the length of the words.
There is another common—but incorrect—“method” of using capitalization in titles. I used to follow it myself (see my first paragraph). Many writers mistakenly believe that in a title, you should capitalize the principal and longer words and lowercase the minor, shorter words.
For example, writers often lowercase all two- or three-letter words in a title because they’re short, and many articles, prepositions, and conjunctions—most of which should be lowercased—are short, as well. However, short words can be nouns, pronouns, and verbs, etc., which should be capitalized. Part of speech is more important than length when it comes to determining capitalization in titles. For example:
Why it’s Never too Late to Learn Grammar (wrong)
“It’s” is a contraction of “it,” a pronoun, and “is,” a verb, both of which should be capitalized; “too” is an adverb, which should also be capitalized.
Regardless of which convention you’d prefer to follow (except for the last example), you need to be consistent. Pick one (or follow the style guide of your employer, school, or clients) and stick with it.

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