what to capitalize in a title

What to Capitalize in a Title

Whether you are a seasoned writer or getting started on your first article, we could all use a refresher on what should be capitalized in a title.

Here, we will cover capitalization that is dependent and independent of the style of writing you are using.

Words to Always Capitalize

Regardless of the style, here are the types of words that should be capitalized:

  • The first and last word– any word regardless of the word itself (including prepositions)
  • Adjectives– descriptive words (e.g. blue, handsome, and scary)
  • Adverb– words or phrases that modify a verb, adjective, or adverb (e.g. then, quietly, and very)
  • Noun– peoples, places, and things, including proper nouns (e.g. dog, street, and Wednesday)
  • Pronouns– words used in place of a noun or noun phrase (e.g. she, they, and our)
  • Verbs– action words, including the helping verb “is” and other forms of “to be”  (e.g. ran, swims, and was)
Words to capitalize and not

Words to Never Capitalize

Some styles have rules based on word length, but generally do not capitalize the following words if they are not the first or last word of the title:

  • Articles– words that modify or indicate a noun (e.g. the, a, and an)
  • Coordinating conjunctions– words that link two or more words, phrases, clauses, or sentences of equal rank (e.g. and, for, and so)
  • Prepositions (3 letters or fewer)– words governing nouns or pronouns with an expressed relation to another word in the clause (e.g. in, to)
Words to capitalize and not 1

Different Styles Require Different Capitalization

Different styles of writing will require you to capitalize different parts of speech. The three most common writing styles are MLA, APA, and CMS. These are different writing and citing styles used for various purposes and have different rules when it comes to title capitalization.

What To Capitalize In MLA

MLA stands for modern language association. This citation and writing format is used mainly for writing papers in the humanities and the arts.
Parts of speech that should be capitalized in MLA include:

  • Nouns 
  • Pronouns
  • Verbs
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs
  • Subordinating conjunctions (ie: although and because)

Parts of speech that should not be capitalized in MLA include:

  • Articles (such as a, an, the)
  • Prepositions ( such as: as, between, of)
  • Coordinating conjunctions (such as: and, but, for) 
  • The word to in the infinitive 

Example: There is Nothing Left to Lose

What To Capitalize in APA

Another common format of citation and writing is APA. APA stands for American Psychological Association and this style of writing can be found in scientific journals about the social sciences. 

The American Psychological Association states that, in a title, the first word, as well as the first word after a colon or dasg, any proper nouns and all major words should be capitalized. 

Words are considered to be major words if they consist of more than four letters and are any of these parts of speech:

  • Nouns
  • Verbs
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs
  • Pronouns

In this format, minor words should not be capitalized (unless it is the first word or first word after a colon or dash). Words are considered to be minor words if they are three or fewer letters and are any of these parts of speech:

  • Conjunctions (and, but, for)
  • Short prepositions (as, of)
  • Articles (such as a, an, the)

The number of letters being an indicator of what to capitalize and what not to capitalize is the biggest difference between APA format and MLA format. 

Example: Running With the Buffaloes

What To Capitalize in CMS

CMS, which stands for Chicago Manual of Style is a format used predominantly by scholars writing on history, philosophy, religion, and the arts.

Parts of speech that should be capitalized in CMS:

  • Nouns
  • Pronouns
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs
  • Verbs
  • First and last words
  • Subordinate conjunctions

Parts of speech that should not be capitalized in CMS:

  • Articles (such as a, an, and the)
  • Prepositions, regardless of length (such as as, between, of, and to)
  • Coordinating conjunctions (such as and, but, for, or, and nor)

Example: How to Win Friends

Online Tools and Guides

Ultimately, how you capitalize your title depends on the style guide you wish to follow.

There is a free online tool called Capitalize My Title that allows you to input your title to automatically capitalize it based on the selected style. A popular guide for writers is Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, a slim and easily accessible book to keep on hand at work or in your home office. 

These resources along with the official style guides should help clear any confusion about what to capitalize in a title. 

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