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Making Sense of Title Style Rules

One copyediting task that should be easy but can be a nightmare is how to capitalize the titles of works, such as books, magazines, articles, and songs—what The AP Stylebook refers to as “compositions.”

The task should be as simple as following a manuscript’s style guide, applying either sentence capitalization or headline capitalization.

But the task is not as simple as it seems, particularly for copyeditors who frequently work in more than one style.

Sentence Capitalization

Sentence capitalization is fairly easy to master. Capitalize the first word and all proper nouns in the title. If your title has a complete sentence within it, cap the first word of any new sentences. Repeat this process for the subtitle, which is usually introduced with a colon or dash.

One wrinkle with this style is people’s titles. Not every title is a proper noun and should be capitalized. Some are just appositives, which should be lowercased. (I’ll talk about distinguishing formal titles from appositives next week.)

Sentence capitalization is frequently used in notes and bibliographies in some styles, such as the American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) style. It may also be used for article titles and subheads in newspapers and magazines.

Headline Capitalization

More often, though, we’re using headline capitalization rules for composition titles. Headline capping is not for the timid, especially if you work in more than one style or frequently run into odd constructions.

The rules are specific and somewhat standard across styles, but each style guide seems to put its own stamp on it. All those I surveyed for this post agree on capping the first and last word. Although not all directly state capping the last word, examples show this to be the case.

The styles also agree on capping the first word in a subtitle. Some use the term subtitle, while others say to cap the word that follows certain punctuation in a title: a period, colon, and dash, though not all styles list all options. And although none include question or exclamation marks, I think we can safely include them.

After that, the rules get annoyingly complex. Some style guides identify the parts of speech, stating which to cap and under what conditions. Others note that you should cap principal or major words and rather than defining them, they define their opposites (e.g., cap principal words but don’t cap articles). The definition of principal or major words varies by style guide, as well.

Then there are hyphenated words. Style guides agree to cap the first word in a hyphenated compound, but whether you cap the second word depends on several criteria (e.g., the presence of a prefix or suffix, permanence of compound, etc.), which vary by style.

Finally, style guides differ on how they treat proper nouns that don’t start with a capital, such as iPhone. Some retain the lowercase, even at the beginning of a title or sentence, while others don’t.

Tools to Manage Capitalization Rules

How can we keep these rules straight in our heads and among the production team, particularly when our client or employer makes changes to a style guide’s rule?

First review the style manual’s general capitalization rule. You can get an overview of the styles I surveyed with the following table:

Word Type
CMoSAPAPAAMACanadian StyleHart
First wordcapcapcapcapcapcap
Last wordcapcapcapcapcapcap
First word of subtitlecapcapcapcapcapcap; the entire subtitle may be lowercase
Major words (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs)capcapcapcapcapcap; pronouns, possessives, and adverbs may lowercase
Prepositionslowercase, unless used as adj.lowercase if less than 4 letterslowercase if less than 4 letterslowercase if less than 4 letterslowercase if less than 4 letterslowercase
Conjunctionslowercase if less than 4 letterslowercase if less than 4 letterslowercaselowercase if less than 4 letterslowercase if less than 4 letterslowercase
Hyphenated wordscap first word; cap subsequent words unless they are articles, prepositions, coordinating conjunctions or if the first element can’t stand on its own
(No clear rule given by style manual.)
cap both wordscap first word; cap subsequent words if neither word is a prefix or suffix, if compound creates a single word (part-time); cap both parts if a temporary compound with words of equal weight (Low-Level)cap first word; cap subsequent words if proper noun, proper adj., or of equal weight as first wordcap both words
Proper nouns that start with lowercasefollow company style (iPhone)cap if first word (IPhone); follow company style otherwise (iPhone)follow company style (iPhone)follow company style (iPhone)follow company style (iPhone)follow company style (iPhone)

Then, download and fill out this Capitalization Policy Worksheet to record your policy. Include any deviations from your style guide, and share the results with those who you are working on the project with.

You can use this worksheet for every client or every manuscript that applies a different style. Keep it with your style sheet as an easy reference.

A version of this article originally published on February 3, 2015, on

5 thoughts on “Making Sense of Title Style Rules

  1. Dear Erin, I really enjoy your newsletter and guidance but need to quibble about your iPhone example. How to capitalize it should not by determined by style guide. iPhone is a registered trademark, so any references should follow Apple’s branding. Similar issues come up frequently in the material I edit so I wanted to pass my guidance along. By defaulting to the vendor’s intended product names our editing team saves a lot of time.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, John. I agree that we should follow the company’s desired spelling of their product’s name as far as realistically possible, as with iPhone, and most style guides have come around to that way of thinking. However, iPhone is not a registered trademark. If you check the Apple website, you won’t see a TM on iPhone. Editors can also search at the USPTO site for registered trademarks.


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