Which Words in a Title Should Be Capitalized?

Which Words in a Title Should Be Capitalized?

Style guides disagree on which words to capitalize in a title (of a book, article, essay, movie, song, poem, play, television program, or computer game). Here's a basic guide to the two most common methods: sentence case and title case.

There's not a single set of rules for capitalizing words in a title. For most of us, it's a matter of selecting one convention and sticking to it. The big decision is whether to go with sentence case (simple) or title case (a little less simple).

Sentence Case (Down Style)

Capitalize only the first word of the title and any proper nouns: "Rules for capitalizing the words in a title." This form, recommended by the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association for titles in reference lists, is popular with many online and print publications. In fact, it's now the standard form for titles and headlines in most countries-but not (yet) in the United States.

Title Case (Headline Style or Up Style)

Capitalize the first and last words of the title and all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (if, because, as, that, and so on): "Rules for Capitalizing the Words in a Title."*

It's the little words that style guides disagree on. The Chicago Manual of Style, for instance, notes that "articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor), and prepositions, regardless of length, are lowercased unless they are the first or last word of the title."

But The Associated Press Stylebook is fussier:

  • Capitalize the principal words, including prepositions and conjunctions of four or more letters.
  • Capitalize an article-the, a, an-or words of fewer than four letters if it is the first or last word in a title.

Other guides say that prepositions and conjunctions of fewer than five letters should be in lowercase-except at the beginning or end of a title. (For additional guidelines, see the glossary entry for title case.)

"Whichever preposition rule you adopt," says Amy Einsohn, "you need to remember that many common prepositions can also function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs, and when they do, they should be capitalized in a title" (The Copyeditor's Handbook, 2006). 

A Capital Answer

So, should you use sentence case or title case? If your school, college, or business has a house style guide, that decision has been made for you. If not, simply pick one or the other (flip a coin if you have to), and then try to be consistent.
*A note on hyphenated compound words.
As a general rule, says The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (2015), "capitalize both parts of a hyphenated compound in a headline: Cease-Fire; Able-Bodied; Sit-In; Make-Believe; One-Fifth. When a hyphen is used with a prefix of two or three letters merely to separate doubled vowels or to clarify pronunciation, lowercase after the hyphen: Co-op; Re-entry; Pre-empt. But: Re-Sign; Co-Author. With a prefix of four letters or more, capitalize after the hyphen: Anti-Intellectual; Post-Mortem. In sums of money: $7 Million; $34 Billion."

Our favorite piece of advice on this subject comes from The Chicago Manual of Style: "Break a rule when it doesn't work."