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Rules for Capitalization in a Title

Angela is a homeschooling mom with a Special Education background. She loves teaching, especially those who sometimes struggle.


Title Case in APA, MLA, and Chicago Style Writing

If you are anything like me, you spent years struggling to know how to capitalize on a header in an article. The two biggest mistakes people fall under are capitalizing all the words in a title and capitalizing all words bigger than three letters. Although many times this method may work, it is not entirely accurate.

The three most common formatting styles are Chicago, APA, and MLA. Although they are very similar, there are slight variations, so it's essential to know which method to use. Fortunately, there are very few differences when dealing with the title case. If you are unsure, or it does not matter which style you use, you want to ensure that you are consistent throughout your article or paper.

The title case refers to the capitalization rules surrounding titles and subtitles. Use title case when writing the title of a book, song, play, etc. Also, use it in newspaper and magazine headlines and titles and subtitles for an article. It is different than sentence case, which refers to the capitalization rules in the body of a text.

According to MLA, APA, and Chicago standards, this title should read, "Rail Wreck Fatal to 20" The word "to" should not be capitalized.

According to MLA, APA, and Chicago standards, this title should read, "Rail Wreck Fatal to 20" The word "to" should not be capitalized.

What to Capitalize

Significant words are capitalized, while minor words are not. Minor words would include articles, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions. Although, capitalize minor words if they are:

  • The first word in a title
  • The last word in a title
  • The first word after a colon (:)

A word is a significant word if it falls under one of these categories:

  • Nouns (Chair, Life, Peace, etc.)
  • Pronouns (He, She, They, etc.)
  • Verbs (Sit, Jump, Prance, and all "to be" verbs, etc.)
  • Adjectives (Small, Brown, Annoying, etc.)
  • Adverbs (Quickly, Abruptly, Smoothly, etc.)
  • Subordinating conjunctions (Whereas, As Soon As, Therefore, etc.)

Keep in mind that "to be" verbs are considered verbs. Many accidentally use lower case because they are very short. To be verbs include; am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.

What Should Never Be Capitalized

There are three types of words that you should not capitalize in all four styles. The one exception is if they are the first or last word in a title.

  • Articles (a, an, the)
  • Coordinating Conjunctions (and, but, or, nor)
  • Short Prepositions, which are four letters or less (at, by, of)

Longer prepositions, such as above or under, may capitalize depending on your style. MLA and Chicago do not capitalize these words (ex. The Troll under the Bridge), whereas APA does capitalize longer prepositions (ex. The Troll Under the Bridge.)

Capitalize the "to" in an infinitive (ex. to play) in APA, but not MLA or Chicago style.

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Read More From Owlcation

  • APA example: The Kid Who Had To Walk
  • MLA or Chicago example: The Kid Who Had to Walk

Capitalization in Hyphenated Words

You should always capitalize the beginning letter of a hyphenated word. When dealing with numbers such as "Twenty-Third" or "Two-Fourths," both elements should begin with an uppercase letter in APA formatting. Still, MLA and Chicago will only capitalize the first letter in the first element, such as "Four-fifths."

When hyphenating other words such as "Pre-Test," it is essential to follow the same rules as above. For instance, "State-of-the-Art" and "Anti-Processing."

Words That Differ Dependent on Use

In, on, by, up, etc., can be used as both adverbs or prepositions and therefore have different rules dependent on usage.

  • (Up as an adverb) Soaring Up High
  • (Up as a preposition) Walking up the Hill

The coordinating conjunction "but" can also vary

  • (as an adverb) Life Is But a Dream
  • (as a coordinating conjunction) Nothing but the Truth

Unfortunately, even within the same style, many sources disagree on what should or should not be capitalized, even within the same style. The best rule of thumb is to be consistent throughout your work. Only make changes if the editor or publisher explicitly states that they want a particular formatting.

Questions & Answers

Question: Do you capitalize the word "for" in a title?

Answer: That depends on where the word "for" is in the title. If it is at the beginning, then yes, you should. If it is in the middle, then usually no. If it happens to come after punctuation, then you should capitalize the word "for."

Question: Should the word "kept" be capitalized in a title?

Answer: Yes, it should. Since "kept" is a verb, and verbs should be capitalized in a title in all formats, the word "kept" should be capitalized.

Question: Should the word 'on' be capitalized in a title?

Answer: In most cases, no it should not be unless it is at the beginning of a title. For example, "On the Border" will have a capitalized 'o' because it begins the title, whereas "Little House on the Prarie" will not have a capitalized 'o' because it is in the middle of the title.

Question: In "US mail," should "mail" be capitalized?

Answer: If it is part of a title, then yes, "mail should be capitalized, so that it reads "US Mail."

Question: Do you capitalize the word "on" in a title?

Answer: In most cases no, unless it is the beginning of a title or after a punctuation; example "On the Border."

Question: Should the words "based on" in a title be capitalized?

Answer: That is a good question. "Based" should definitely be capitalized, although the word "on" is a short preposition; therefore, should not be capitalized.

© 2018 Angela Michelle Schultz


Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on June 11, 2018:

I have noticed that HubPages don't adhere strictly to one, but a highbrid. For instances, the one thing they do not follow with APA is the to in a verb. You'll notice the "What to Capitalize" is not technically APA consistent. On the other hand, they capitalize longer prepositions like through and without, which is APA unique. The key is being consistent and if you are writing for a particular company to understand their requirements.

Jean Bakula from New Jersey on June 10, 2018:

Well done! I find HP uses APA, but has a few of their own quirks in there too, and editors often hold a submitted niche article for weeks over one article! What they want is different than what I learned in writing in school, as there was no APA then. My post college aged son also thinks that HP takes liberties with this style, as I sometimes ask him to proof read for me what I can. Thanks for an informative piece!

Dianna Mendez on April 14, 2018:

What a valuable article for all writers. I will have to file this for reference.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on March 22, 2018:

I was so not a newbie, but until I decided to write this, I had NO IDEA how to write a header. I kept doing it wrong and the staff kept correcting it. I finally decided to learn so I didn't need to it constantly corrected for me.

Gregory DeVictor from Pittsburgh, PA on March 22, 2018:

Great article! Because I am a grammar fanatic myself, your article is very informative. I also believe that some of HP’s newbie writers should read your article. Many of them don’t know how to properly capitalize the titles of their hubs as well as the capsule headings.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on March 22, 2018:

I actually wrote it, because I am always capitalizing titles incorrectly. So instead of having editors correct me, I thought I would learn how to do it. Then, figured it was worth writing about it!

RTalloni on March 22, 2018:

Excellent post. This is a helpful guide for writers, students, and anyone needing to proofread work.

Halley Kawistoro from Indonesia on March 22, 2018:

nice article mis.

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