Grammar Capitalizing Composition Titles: The Lowdown |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Capitalizing Composition Titles: The Lowdown

Which words should be capitalized in titles of books, plays, films, songs, poems, essays, chapters, and the like? This is a vexing matter, and policies vary. The time-honored advice—capitalize only the “important” words—doesn’t help much. Aren’t all words in a title important?

The following rules for capitalizing composition titles are virtually universal.

• Capitalize the title’s first and last word.

• Capitalize all adjectives, adverbs, and nouns.

• Capitalize all pronouns (including it).

• Capitalize all verbs, including the verb to be in all forms (isarewashas been, etc.).

• Capitalize no, not, and the interjection (e.g., How Long Must I Wait, O Lord?).

• Do not capitalize an article (aanthe) unless it is first or last in the title.

• Do not capitalize a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, for, yet, so) unless it is first or last in the title.

• Do not capitalize the word to, with or without an infinitive, unless it is first or last in the title.

Otherwise, styles, methods, and opinions vary; for instance, certain short conjunctions (e.g., asifhowthat) are capped by some, lowercased by others. 

A major bone of contention is prepositions. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends capitalizing all prepositions of more than three letters (e.g., withaboutacross). Other authorities advise lowercase until a preposition reaches five or more letters. Still others say not to capitalize any preposition, even big words like regarding or underneath.

Hyphenated words in a title also present problems. There are no set rules, except to always capitalize the first element, even if it would not otherwise be capitalized, such as to in My To-go Order (some would write My To-Go Order). Some writers, editors, and publishers choose not to capitalize words following hyphens unless they are proper nouns or proper adjectives (Ex-Marine but Ex-husband). Others capitalize any word that would otherwise be capped in titles (Prize-WinningUp-to-Date).

Many books have subtitles. When including these, put a colon after the work’s title and follow the same rules of composition-title capitalization for the subtitle: The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage. Note that is capitalized because it is the first word of the subtitle.

Capitalizing composition titles is fraught with gray areas. Pick a policy and be consistent. Next time we’ll discuss more of the pitfalls of this tricky business.


Pop Quiz

Capitalize the following titles. Answers are below.

1. how to be decisive yet careful

2. the secrets of the woman who is free

3. where, o where, is my in-the-flesh soulmate?

4. happiness: the proof that it is possible

5. the man who did not dance with wolves


Pop Quiz Answers

1. How to Be Decisive yet Careful

2. The Secrets of the Woman Who Is Free

3. Where, O Where, Is My In-the-Flesh Soulmate? (OR In-the-flesh)

4. Happiness: The Proof That It Is Possible (OR that It Is Possible)

5. The Man Who Did Not Dance with Wolves (OR With Wolves)

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

10 responses to “Capitalizing Composition Titles: The Lowdown”

  1. Karen says:

    Is it proper to write “in the year 2014” or do I write it “in 2014”? We assume these are to be part of composition titles. Therefore “Year” should be capitalized.

  2. Kerry says:

    What happens with a title such as “Who’s In, Who’s Out”? Would you capitalize it in this way? Is here “to be in” and “to be out” phrasal verbs or is there a different reasoning behind the decision?

    • The phrase who’s in is an idiom meaning “who is participating?” The idiom who’s out means “who is not participating?” The phrases are considered informal. The words in and out are part of the phrasal verbs to be in and to be out. Your example sentences contain contractions containing the verb is. Therefore, we recommend capitalizing in and out.

  3. Brittany says:

    If you are citing an online article and the title is not capitalized according to bluebook rules (for example, “Revealed: all the things you need to know” or “President Obama’s first vacation after leaving office”) do you correct this in your citation (for example, “Revealed: All the Things You Need to Know” or “President Obama’s First Vacation After Leaving Office”) or leave as is?

    Rule 18.2.2 gives the following direction: Titles should be used to indicate the location of the page being viewed in relation to the rest of the site. Titles should be taken either from the “title bar” at the top of the browser or from any clearly announced heading identifying the page as it appears in the browser. All efforts should be made to include a title that sufficiently identifies the page but that is not unwieldy, long, uninformative, or confusing. Do not italicize descriptive titles.

    Thank you in advance!

    • Some newspapers, magazines, and online sources capitalize only the first word and proper nouns in the titles of articles. We recommend that your citation reflect the capitalization used in the published article.

  4. gursimran says:

    He won the First prize- do I capitalize First, Second etc.

  5. Ann says:

    There are two points in the do-and-don’t list that I find confusing. The first is: Capitalize all verbs, including the verb to be in all forms (is, are, was, has been, etc.). The second is: Do not capitalize the word to, with or without an infinitive, unless it is first or last in the title. Can you please help me understand this, or is it just another grammar conundrum? Thank you.

    • We understand your confusion over the grammatical term “the verb to be in all forms …” The verb in the actual infinitive to be should be capitalized in a composition title. Here’s an example theoretical book title: It’s Wonderful to Be Able to Go to the Store.

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