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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
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 (is, are, was, has been, etc.).
• Capitalize no, not, and the interjection O (e.g., How Long Must I Wait, O Lord?).
• Do not capitalize an article (a, an, the) 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., as, if, how, that) 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., with, about, across). 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-Winning, Up-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 A 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
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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
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If these newspaper headlines found circulating the Internet are authentic, they demonstrate either an absence of thoughtful editing or a mischievous sense of humor.
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)
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.