Rules for Capitalization in a Title
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 the 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.
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 styles, 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 uppercase 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
In "US mail," should "mail" be capitalized?
If it is part of a title, then yes, "mail should be capitalized, so that it reads "US Mail."
Should the words "based on" in a title be capitalized?
That is a good question. "Based" should definitely be capitalized, although the word "on" is a short preposition; therefore, should not be capitalized.
Do you capitalize the word "on" in a title?
In most cases no, unless it is the beginning of a title or after a punctuation; example "On the Border."
© 2018 Angela Michelle Schultz