I understand the how, but the why escapes me completely. After a decent amount of searching on the internet I can only find people talking about how to capitalize a title (or more importantly which words to not capitalize). Even the style guides have been mute about why they are asking us to use such a convoluted set of rules.

Is there some typographical or grammatical reason for some words to not have intial caps in a title (other than the arbitrary "because that is what is done")?

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    Some examples would be nice. – Andrew Leach Jan 30 '13 at 14:00
  • The only typographic reason I could discern from having that rule is that articles, prepositions, and such prove to be a noise when a person is reading the "title" of a particular piece and hence they don't need to be "highlighted" more by using initial-caps....Subconsciously, they may have been conditioned over a period of time, but people/We don't seem to look for the grammatical correctness in titles and rather expect a quick and immediate intake of the topic of the piece, so that they can decide if they want to go ahead and read or not. – Mohit Jan 30 '13 at 14:36
  • @AndrewLeach I am talking about titles of Books, Plays, Movies, Songs, etc. – Chas. Owens Jan 30 '13 at 15:27
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    Yes. But some real-world examples would be nice. Because not all dialects of English behave the same way. – Andrew Leach Jan 30 '13 at 16:21
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    On the contrary, I am familiar with it, but styles do differ. However that's fine. I won't answer. – Andrew Leach Jan 30 '13 at 17:12

The idea behind many title capitalisation rules is to emphasise key words of the title which apparently improves the "impact" on the reader.

From Wikipedia's article on letter casing:

Among U.S. book publishers (but not newspaper publishers), it is a common typographic practice to capitalize "important" words in titles and headings. This is an old form of emphasis, similar to the more modern practice of using a larger or boldface font for titles.

  • So, it is your position that capitalization in titles is a typographical skeuomorph (ie we started doing it for emphasis, but now that it is longer need it, because of bolding, size, etc., we just keep it around because it looks right)? – Chas. Owens Jan 30 '13 at 15:25

The simplest rule (but far from universal) is to capitalize all words except articles, prepositions and conjunctions. However, the first word is usually capitalized, even if it is one of the three exceptions.

The words that are capitalized are nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and interjections. These are the words that generally convey the most important information in a sentence or phrase. In archaic US English, nouns (and I believe verbs) were sometimes capitalized in body text as well.

Headlines can usually convey most of their meaning without articles, conjunctions and even prepositions. Newspaper headlines often omit them for both space and punch.

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    The question is not about what the rule is, the question is about where the rule comes from. – Matt E. Эллен Jan 30 '13 at 14:17
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    And in any case, the simplest rule is to capitalise a sentence exactly the same way as any other sentence (as is more common in British English), so you only have to worry about the first word and proper nouns. – Andrew Leach Jan 30 '13 at 14:30
  • @MattЭллен Good point. Answer revised. – bib Jan 30 '13 at 14:30
  • Many titles do not consist of full sentences or even sentence substitutes. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 30 '13 at 14:35

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