Properly Capitalized Titles

As writers—and especially editors—we are tasked with knowing the “what’s what” of English. In our industry, we mustn’t follow two acts. First, we don’t want to be a writer who constantly makes grammatical mistakes. Second, we don’t want to be an editor who makes incorrect changes. So, when it comes to proper title capitalization, do you know what’s what?

The Rules of Title Capitalization

If you think every word in a title needs to be capitalized, then we need to chat. Specific guidelines apply to title capitalization, and not every word is bestowed a capital letter:

  • The first and last word should always be capitalized. This is the ultimate trump card. It’s the rule to forever follow, even when a word would normally be lowercase per other rules.
  • Post punctuation capitalization. Sometimes a title incorporates a colon ( : ), a dash ( ― ), or other form of punctuation. Capitalize each individual piece of the title as if it were a distinct title.
  • Capitalize compounds formed by hyphens. Each part of the compound should be capitalized exactly the same as if it were a separate word.
  • All words between the first and last word of the title should be capitalized, except the exceptions. Here’s where titles get tricky. Several types of words are not to be capitalized in a title or heading because they are exceptions to the rule.

Exception #1: Articles

The English language contains three articles: The, a, and an. The is a definite article. A and an are indefinite articles. Articles are not capitalized in a title unless they are the first or last word of the title, or they directly follow title punctuation.

Exception #2: Conjunctions

If a coordinating conjunction falls between the first and last word of the title, do not capitalize it. According to Grammarly, a coordinating conjunction joins “two independent clauses, or two nouns, or two verbs, etc.” The best acronym for remembering conjunctions is FANBOYS:

Coordinating Conjunctions Acronym
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Exception #3: Short Prepositions

Short prepositions are almost never capitalized in titles. However, if they are used as adverbs, an inseparable part of a verb, the first or last word of a title, or the first word following punctuation, this exception does not apply.

Most word processing programs will automatically flag improperly capitalized (or uncapitalized) words. The English Club offers a comprehensive list of the 70 most common English prepositions.

Exception #4: Infinitives, Contractions, and Slang

A title serves two purposes. It reflects the intent of the content, and it piques curiosity to draw readers in. When used to form an infinitive: to, it should not be capitalized.

Contractions and slang find their way into titles and headings to pique interest and establish common ground with readers. There’s nothing wrong with using them as long as you capitalize based on the rules above. For example, you would avoid capitalizing o’ for “of” and ‘n’ or n’ for “and.”

Title Capitalization Examples

How did your knowledge of proper title capitalization stand up to our summary? Here are some examples of properly capitalized titles for the road:

  • 15 Ways to Improve Your SEO
  • The Chicken and the Egg
  • 4 Unavoidable Title Capitalization Exceptions
  • It’s Never about Total Logic

Remember, it pays to learn the rules. Autocorrect and computerized proofreading can’t catch everything all the time. That’s where a great editor comes in.


Feature Image Credit: wavebreakmediamicro at 123RF Stock Photo

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