Rules for Capitalization in a Title

Updated on March 22, 2018
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Angela is a home schooling 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, then you spent years struggling to know how to capitalize 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 each are very similar, there are slight variations and so it's important to know which style is expected. Fortunately, when dealing with title case, there are very few differences. If you are unsure or it does not matter which style you use, then you want to assure that you are consistent throughout your article or paper.

Title case refers to the capitalization rules surrounding titles and subtitles. It is used when writing a title of a book, song, play, etc. It is also used in newspaper and magazine headlines, as well as 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. | Source

What to Capitalize

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

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

A word is considered a major 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

In all four style, there are three types of words that are not capitalized. 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 be capitalized dependent on what style is being used. 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.)

The "to" in an infinitive (ex. to play) is capitalized in APA (ex. The Kid Who Had To Walk), but not in MLA or Chicago style (The Kid Who Had to Walk).

Capitalization in Hyphenated Words

The beginning letter of a hyphenated word should always be capitalized. When dealing with numbers such as "Twenty-Third," or "Two-Fourths" both elements should begin with an upper case letter in APA formatting, but 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 important 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, there are a lot of sources that disagree as to what should be capitalized and what should not be, even within the same style. The best rule of thumb is to be consistent throughout all of your work. Only make changes if the editor or publisher specifically states that they want a particular formatting.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Angela Michelle Schultz


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      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 10 days ago

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

      • angela_michelle profile image

        Angela Michelle Schultz 4 weeks ago from United States

        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 profile image

        Gregory DeVictor 4 weeks ago from Squirrel Hill, PA

        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 profile image

        Angela Michelle Schultz 4 weeks ago from United States

        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 profile image

        RTalloni 4 weeks ago from the short journey

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

      • Halley Indonesia profile image

        Halley Kawistoro 4 weeks ago from Indonesia

        nice article mis.