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Are there any concrete rules that say which words (parts of speech) in a title should start with a capital letter? What would be a correct capitalization for the title of this question?

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Which Words in a Title Should Be Capitalized?* –  David Foster Aug 5 '10 at 20:49
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Which Words in a Title should be Capitalized? –  Arlen Beiler Aug 5 '10 at 22:14
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Oh wow. You really should have titled this question "The Title of This Question". –  WAF Jan 20 '11 at 23:48
    
Grammarbook link: grammarbook.com/punctuation/capital.asp –  Ibn Ar-Rashid Apr 6 '11 at 13:04

12 Answers 12

up vote 51 down vote accepted

This Writer's Block page on capitalization sums up the rules in one page which is the most useful that I have found, basically these rules from the Chicago Manual of Style plus a number of minor rules which are worth reading:

  1. Always capitalize the first and the last word.
  2. Capitalize all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinate conjunctions ("as", "because", "although", "if", etc.).
  3. Lowercase all articles, coordinate conjunctions ("and", "or", "nor"), and prepositions regardless of length, when they are other than the first or last word. (Note: NIVA prefers to capitalize prepositions of five characters or more ("after", "among", "between").)
  4. Lowercase the "to" in an infinitive.
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I guess there are always exceptions: imagine the title "The history of the lowercase letter i". –  Per Alexandersson Sep 3 at 8:32

I believe that the capitalization of a title depends on the medium. In a formal medium such as an academic paper, the first word and all words other than articles ("a", "the", etc.) and prepositions ("of", "under", "about", etc.) should be capitalized. However, in more casual situations (such as web logs and Q&A sites), only the first letter must be capitalized. Personally, I prefer to capitalize only the first letter of my headers to increase their readability.

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There is no universal standard, but various style guides generally state that prepositions (at, on, by, in, of, to, etc.) articles (a, an, the) and conjunctions (if, and, or, but) are not capitalized unless one is the first word.

I have also heard of rules where all one and two-letter words are not capitalized, so a preposition like 'at' is not capitalized, but 'about' or 'under' would be.

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This heavily depends on the style guide in use; they usually have a fairly exact specification. In a formal publication you should perhaps inquire what the recommended style is.

If you have no overruling style guide to follow, you are almost never wrong capitalizing a title just like a normal sentence. Compare newspaper headlines from today:

New York Times:

Senate Votes to Confirm Elena Kagan for U.S. Supreme Court

Washington Post:

Senate confirms Elena Kagan to Supreme Court

If you capitalize normally, you are less likely to be inconsistent or wrong.

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So those 2 outlets clearly use different capitalisation rules. Which is more widely accepted? –  Simon May 23 at 3:06

This is taken from a site concerned with Album titles, but can easily be applied to other titles as well.

How should I capitalize album titles and band names?

Please use the following standard guidelines for capitalizing artist names, record labels, album and song titles in the English language. Other rules may apply to other languages.

All titles should be in standard mixed case, where the first letter of each word is capitalized and followed by lower case letters, as noted below:

  1. Capitalize all nouns, verbs (including be, been, am, are, is, was, and were), adverbs, subordinating conjunctions (including if and as when it is not used as a preposition), adjectives (including so when used as an adjective), and pronouns (including he, she, we, and it). Examples:

    • Love Is in the Air
    • I Am the Walrus
    • That Was Then, This Is Now
    • You Are So Beautiful
    • This Is As Good As It Gets
  2. Do not capitalize:

    a. Articles: a, an, the (unless part of an artist's name)

    • The Man Who Sold the World
    • In a Safe Place
    • The Best of The Temptations

    b. Coordinating conjunctions: and, but, or, nor, for, yet, and so

    • Rattle and Hum
    • It's Now or Never
    • Nothin' but a Good Time

      Special Notes: The word "but" can function as either a conjunction, preposition, or an adverb. Most of the time, it functions as a conjunction or a preposition and should be lowercase. Much less frequently, it will function as an adverb, and should be capitalized. In that case, the word "but" will immediately follow a verb (without a comma), and can be replaced by other adverbs like "only" or "just" (without changing anything else or adding punctuation) and will convey the same message:

      • Life Is But a Dream
      • Ain't But a Few of Us Left
      • You Are But a Draft, a Long Rehearsal for a Show That Will Never Play

      If the word "but" is better replaced by the word "except", or if it is used in a phrase that contradicts the first half of the sentence, it is not an adverb and should be lowercase.

      • I Know You Are but What Am I
      • I Don't Know What It Is but I Like It

    c. Short prepositions: as, at, by, for, in, of, on, to, from

    • Live at Woodstock
    • Face to Face
    • Death Cab for Cutie
    • Pretty in Pink
    • Come in from the Cold

      Special Note: The word "versus" (and its abbreviated form "vs." or "v.") is commonly left in lower case, despite its being a preposition of more than three characters.

      • Spy vs. Spy
      • Birds v. Worms

      Special Note: The word "etcetera" (and its abbreviated form "etc.") is also commonly left in lower case when used to represent the phrase "and so on" or "and so forth".

      • Time After Time etc.

    d. When used to form an infinitive: to

    • Nowhere to Run
    • How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
    • Song I Love to Sing
    • Reality Used to Be a Friend of Mine
  3. If a title is broken up by major punctuation (colon, question mark, exclamation mark, em-dash, parentheses, or quotes), treat each distinct piece of the title as a whole, and always capitalize the first and last words of each division.

    • Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding
    • In Time: The Best of R.E.M.
    • I'm Just a Singer (In a Rock 'n' Roll Band)
  4. In compounds formed by hyphens, capitalize each part except where the part would not be capitalized if it were a separate word.

    • The Go-Gos
    • At the Drive-In
    • The Boy With the X-Ray Eyes
  5. Only use all caps for acronyms or abbreviations where common use is all caps.

    • R.E.M.
    • N.W.A.
    • R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
  6. Capitalize contractions and slang consistent with the rules above to the extent that such clearly apply. For example, do not capitalize o' for "of", or n' for "and", etc.

    • Rock 'n' Roll
    • Will o' the Wisp
    • Sweet Child o' Mine
  7. Proper nouns should always be capitalized appropriately. This includes parts of band names separated by the word 'and' (for example) where the two parts could stand alone, grammatically.

    • Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
    • Elvis Costello and The Attractions
    • Huey Lewis and The News
  8. Always capitalize the first and last word of a title, even if it would otherwise be lowercase. Examples:

    • Bring it On
    • One Is For
    • And You and I
    • The Greatest Hits Of

[edit] Exceptions

In the case where an artist uses a nonstandard capitalization with an artistic intent, the original capitalization used by the artist should be preserved. Examples include k.d. lang (artist), Yellow mY skYcaptain (release), and "tourette's" - track 11 on the release In Utero.

Note that there are cases in which the name of an artist or album - or an entire tracklisting - is written entirely in uppercase or lowercase in the art which accompanies a release. These instances do not qualify as an exception, because they do not represent artistic intent regarding capitalization (in most cases, they are written in this manner for aesthetic purposes related to the cover art).

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Very interesting. I wonder if anyone has written a library to modify the case of song titles etc. according to these rules. –  ThiefMaster Oct 6 '12 at 14:51

Title case conventions can vary among different authors or publications. But the most common rule is the following (from yourdictionary.com):

In Titles: Do Capitalize

  • Nouns (man, bus, book)
  • Adjectives (angry, lovely, small)
  • Verbs (run, eat, sleep)
  • Adverbs (slowly, quickly, quietly)
  • Pronouns (he, she, it)
  • Subordinating conjunctions (as, because, that)

In Titles: Do Not Capitalize

  • Articles: a, an, the
  • Coordinating Conjunctions: and, but, or, for, nor, etc.
  • Prepositions (fewer than five letters): on, at, to, from, by, etc.

As I said, this can vary from text to text; you will find exceptional uses here and there.

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According to Suite101

There seem to be some undisputed rules:

  • First and last word
  • Nouns and verbs
  • No periods or exclamation points

Some are quite common:

  • Significant parts of speech of or more than four or five letters. Pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs.
  • Lowercasing of minor parts of speech. Articles and words shorter than four or five letters.

They add additional rules according to The Chicago Manual of Style and the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications. See the article itself for copyright reasons.

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It's all a matter of style and consistency. Some choose to capitalize only the first word, e.g. (using your example)

The title of this question

Others capitalize the key parts of speech in the title, excluding conjunctions, prepositions, and the like:

The Title of T/this Question

In some cases, all the words in the title are capitalized:

The Title Of This Question

One can usually observe how these conventions are employed by studying newspaper headlines, for instance.

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Song titles employ initial capitals for all words. Exceptions seem rare. –  RedGrittyBrick Jan 21 '11 at 14:50
    
@RedGrittyBrick: That is very true. –  Jimi Oke Jan 21 '11 at 15:09

There is no hard rule on that, you need to refer to the style guide for your target audience (newspaper, academia, etc.).

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What would be a correct capitalization for the title of this question?

The other answers cover titles in general, but for this site sentence case is favoured, like this:

Which words in a title should be capitalized?

See meta for more.

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Interestingly the German wikipedia page on capitalisation states that British English uses sentence capitalisation in titles in newspapers, whereas book and play titles are according to the American format. I can't find much other reference to that though. Australian English, which is similar to British English, always uses the style that most have described here. Here's the quote - you don't need to understand it because it says what I just wrote, interspersed with some examples which you will be able to understand:

In britischen Zeitungen wird in der Regel nur das erste Wort einer Überschrift mit einem großen Anfangsbuchstaben geschrieben. Die restlichen Wörter (außer natürlich Eigennamen und deren Ableitungen) haben einen kleinen Anfangsbuchstaben: Publish and be damned (The Guardian), Political soap aims to dish the dirt (The Guardian), Requiem 11:20 06.07.00 for a tenor (The Times), Don't feather our nest (Daily Telegraph), A Miss Marple for today (Daily Telegraph),…. Buchtitel sowie die Titel von Theaterstücken o.ä. werden aber wie die Überschriften in amerikanischen Zeitungen geschrieben: bis auf die Artikel, Partikel und Präpositionen weisen alle Wörter grundsätzlich einen großen Anfangsbuchstaben auf: Androcles and the Lion, The Importance of Being Earnest, Alice in Wonderland, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Plain Tales from the Hills, http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gro%C3%9Fschreibung

Not sure if the Germans are actually the right people to answer this question, but interesting anyway. Can anyone shed more light on British capitalisation rules?

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Can anyone? How about the other answers? –  Matt Эллен Jun 6 '12 at 9:22
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Looking at the Guardian online, they're correct. Newspaper article headlines are capitalized sentence-style in the U.K., while they are capitalized title-style in the U.S. I'd call these headlines rather than titles, though. –  Peter Shor Jun 6 '12 at 14:07
    
@Matt Эллен The other answers repeatedly reference American sources like the Chicago Manual of Style. There has been no other mention of the UK and hence I was unsure as to whether the answers were universal or pertained only to the US. Sometimes even when people write "undisputed" or "universal" they really mean "undisputed/universal within the US". Somewhat of an oxymoron, but it's like "World Series" baseball: it comprises teams from the US and Canada :-). –  Fletch Jun 14 '12 at 17:03

Historically, all nouns were capitalized in English, even in mere sentences (check some Benjamin Franklin, or Shakespeare from the original Folios), and this remains true even today in German, as the Wörter cited above demonstrate. In titles, capitalization increases with the size and formality of the publication; in journalism downstyle--i.e. only the first word capitalized--is generally the rule in headlines and cutlines (The NYT example cited above with most-caps--as I'll denote the various anal but fairly-harmonious fine-tunings outlined above--is unusual among newspapers, perhaps just archaic, and bears the stigma of pomposity that afflicts any overuse of capitals).

e. e. cummings, internet-j@rgon and democratic yearnings have nowadays hit capitalization HARD, with the extreme opposite,total non-caps now sometimes used to raise eyebrows (e.g. the book fearful symmetry - the fall and rise of canada's founding values, by BRIAN LEE CROWLEY, god help us all!)

Pulling a few books from my immediate vicinity, I discover that most front-covers use TOTAL-CAPS: e.g. MUSSOLINI - HIS PART IN MY DOWNFALL by Spike Milligan, but these are generally toned down to most-caps on their title-pages. Ronnie Hawkins's publisher probably violated some rules and irritated a few pedants when it titled his autobiography Last of the Good ol' Boys--or are there promiscuous sub-sections of the style-guides which allow the non-capitalization of colloquialisms like ol'??)... (in the book's cataloguing information the title is rendered downstyle: Last of the good ol' boys).

All of which leads me to the conclusion that the rules are only as good as the goose-steppers who march along to them. Personally, I'm more concerned with the anarchic use of italics/"quotation-marks" for albums/"songs" (or more often vice-versa) in reviews and critical literature. I should probably start ranting... er, asking a question about THAT next. =]

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protected by RegDwigнt Jun 6 '12 at 8:58

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