The English language

Do I Have to Capitalize It? Title case explained

When reading an American newspaper, you may have noticed that in headlines most words are capitalized, which is called “title case”. You are far less likely, however, to find title case when reading a British newspaper, as they generally prefer “sentence case”. What are the pros and cons of title case and how do you use it?

It’s not only newspapers who use title case. Apple, for example, uses it in their operating system as well as in their apps, while Microsoft defines sentence case as the standard in their style guide. Other companies may not have any set rules at all. For instance, I found both the headings “Shop by Category” and “Get fit at home” right on the front page of amazon.com.

So why use title case at all? Isn’t it kind of complicated, outdated, and really quite uncool?

Rat-Fact

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Title case – the pros

Despite its increasingly bad reputation, there are a few points to be made for title case.

First, while some may argue that title case has an antiquated touch, it also conveys an aura of respectability and dignity. This is probably one of the main reasons why long-established newspapers like the New York Times like to use it. After all, what is more traditional and staid than the New York Times?

Closely connected to this, capital letters also lend an air of authority and importance to a headline that a sentence case headline just can’t quite manage to summon up.

Secondly, headings or headlines written in title case are more prominent. If you capitalize most of the words in your heading, it will stand out more against the rest of the text. Try it out for yourself.

Thirdly, there is something to be said for the symmetry of a title case headline. Sentence case heavily emphasizes the beginning of sentences, while a headline in title case is more visually balanced.

Title case – the cons

I have made the point that title case has a traditional, authoritative quality to it. While in some cases this will be just what you are going for, in others it may seem somewhat too formal and stiff. Some might even call it outdated. In contrast, sentence case seems considerably more friendly, modern, and conversational.

Proponents of sentence case also justifiably argue that title case is harder to read. In fact, it can get quite confusing if you are not used to it. In title case, it is not, for example, always clear which words are proper nouns and which ones aren’t. For instance: If you read the words “Add to Calendar” on your iPhone (which generally uses title case), does this mean the app named Calendar or just any calendar of your choosing? If apple universally used sentence case, you wouldn’t have this problem.

The biggest point to be made against title case, in my opinion, is that there are no set rules about how to use it. Though there is some degree of consensus, every publication has its guidelines for how to use title case, each with minor variations. This can leave the writer somewhat confused and is one of the reasons I have chosen to use sentence case throughout my own website.

There isn’t one for all

So, as we have seen, there are many arguments to be made for both title and sentence case. My suggestion would be this: When trying to radiate respectability and importance (for example when writing an academic paper), use title case. When you’re going for a more casual and friendly feel, use sentence case. Also, if you’re British, use sentence case – just because the British seem to prefer it. 😉

So how do you use title case?

Sentence case is quite easy: capitalize the first word and all proper nouns; lowercase everything else. With title case, as I have already mentioned, things aren’t quite as straightforward. This is largely due to the fact that there are no fixed rules for how to use it. There is, however, a large area of overlap, which most publications follow. For this article, I have taken a look at three of the most influential style guides and compared them (AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, APA Style).

Consensus exists for the following rules:

  • Capitalize the first word of the heading or subheading.
  • Capitalize major words. This will generally mean to be all nouns and verbs.
  • Do not capitalize articles (the, a), short conjunctions (and, but), and short prepositions (to, at, by, for, of) unless they are the first word in the heading.

Other rules:

Unfortunately, this is where the similarities end. Beyond these parallels, AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, and APA Style differ in some small but nonetheless vital points.

  • While all three publications capitalize the first word in a heading, AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style also capitalize the last word.
  • AP capitalizes prepositions and conjunctions which are longer than three letters, while the Chicago Manual of Style suggests lowercasing all prepositions, “regardless of length” unless they are stressed. APA, on the other hand, capitalizes any word that has more than three letters.
  • APA specifically advises capitalizing “the second part of hyphenated major words”, such as “Self-Control”.

What is interesting is that even when title case is used, this does not necessarily mean it will be used everywhere. APA Style, for instance, uses it only for level 1 or level 2 headings but moves to sentence style for less important headings.

So, are you any less confused now? If you are still not sure how to use title case, my most important suggestion would be: be consistent. In the end, it does not matter which style you chose (unless you are writing for a publication that follows one set of rules or another). What is more important is that, whichever way you do it, you pick a style and stick with it.

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