It would be nice if everyone agreed on all writing rules. While there are some things that are absolutes, like capitalizing the first letter of a sentence, it’s not all so simple. And one thing that often trips authors up is how to capitalize titles. Not only does this refer to book titles, but also to chapter titles and subtitles, blog headings, and email headings, among others.
The title capitalization rules, known as title case, vary depending on the particular style guide you’re following. Luckily, this also means that there are several acceptable ways to capitalize your titles! Read on to find out what they are.
- Easy-to-remember rules about title capitalization
- Answers to common title capitalization questions
Table of contents
- General Rules for Title Capitalization
- The Most Common Title Capitalization Questions
- Major vs Minor Words
General Rules for Title Capitalization
Before we dive into questions about specific words in titles, it’s important to keep in mind some general rules that most (if not all) style guides follow. These are pretty easy to remember, and they’ll give you a basis of knowledge we’ll build on below!
(Having trouble coming up with a title? Check out this article on coming up with a bestselling book title!)
Always Capitalize First and Last Words in a Title
You should always capitalize the first and last words in a title in title case. Not the whole word, mind you — just the first letter.
- Correct – The Sun Also Rises
- Incorrect – The Sun Also rises
Always Capitalize Nouns and Pronouns
No matter where they appear in the title, nouns (including proper nouns) and pronouns should always be capitalized.
- Correct – The Sun Also Rises
- Incorrect – The sun Also Rises
Always Capitalize Verbs
According to title case rules in all major style guides, you should always capitalize each and every verb. Helping verbs are included in this, and any variation on “to be.” This often trips people up, but a verb is considered a major word in title case. So don't forget to capitalize each verb in your title!
- Correct – We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young
- Incorrect – We were Soldiers Once . . . and Young
Always Capitalize Adverbs and Adjectives
Title case rules also state that you should capitalize adverbs and adjectives.
- Correct – A Scanner Darkly (Adverb)
- Incorrect – A Scanner darkly
- Correct – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Adjective)
- Incorrect – The amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Don't Capitalize Coordinating Conjunctions
Coordinating conjunctions are short words that need not be capitalized in your title. These include the words “and,” “for,” “but,” “yet,” and “so.”
- Correct – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
- Incorrect – The Lion, the Witch, And the Wardrobe.
Don't Capitalize Articles
Keeping in mind the rule about capitalizing first and last words in the title, articles shouldn't be capitalized. So unless your article comes at the very beginning or the very end of your title, it gets a lowercase letter!
- Correct – A Death in the Family
- Incorrect – A Death in The Family
Don't Capitalize Short Prepositions
Short prepositions are those of three or fewer letters. When it comes to long prepositions, the style books differ. But short ones should always get a lowercase letter unless they're the first or last word in the title.
- Correct – Love in the Time of Cholera
- Incorrect – Love In the Time Of Cholera
The Most Common Title Capitalization Questions
For most people, the question of capitalization comes down to just a few words. Words such as “in,” “that,” “on,” and a couple of others can trip us up and get us second-guessing. So let’s determine once and for all whether we should capitalize these words in a title.
Is “in” Capitalized in a Title?
You may be able to tell from the subheading above that “in” is typically not capitalized in a title. However, there are exceptions to this. For example, if the word comes at the beginning or the end of the title, it should be capitalized. This is the case with the movie title: “In the Mouth of Madness.” Or with the title I just made up: “Time to Go In.”
“In” is considered a minor word in all major style guides, meaning it’s not typically capitalized. But if it is the first part of a hyphenated word, like “In-Time,” then it would be capitalized. (However, “In-Time” would be “In-time” if you’re following the AP style guide. More on that later.)
Is “That” Capitalized in a Title?
According to all major style guides, “that” should be capitalized in a title. Whether it’s at the beginning or end, hyphenated or not, “that” should always be capitalized in your title!
Since “that” can change function depending on how it’s used, it’s considered a major word. We should capitalize all major words in a title. Also, it’s four letters long, which is longer than the three-letter rule of thumb that some style guides use to determine title capitalization. But this rule of thumb applies only to minor words, not major words. More on those later.
Is “on” Capitalized in a Title?
Since “on” is a preposition, it’s generally not capitalized in a title. However, remember the unchanging rules we discussed above. If “on” comes at the beginning or end of the title or follows end punctuation — period, question mark, or exclamation point — then it should be capitalized.
When it comes to hyphenated words containing “on,” it depends on where the word is located. If it’s at the beginning of the hyphenated word, like in the title “The Comprehensive Guide to On-Site Power,” then it should be capitalized. But if it comes after the hyphen, like in the title “My Rock-on Summer Romance,” then it shouldn’t be capitalized.
Is “My” Capitalized in a Title?
Although I mentioned a rule of thumb earlier about words with three or fewer letters not being capitalized, I was talking about minor words. And since “my” is a pronoun, it should always be capitalized in a title. In fact, every noun should be capitalized in your title.
The only major style guide that allows for any deviation is the AP style guide. According to that guide, “my” wouldn’t be capitalized in a title if it came after a hyphen. Thankfully, it’s not common to put pronouns after hyphens, so you shouldn’t have to worry about this.
Is “Are” Capitalized in a Title?
Another rule that all the major style books agree on is the capitalization of verbs such as “are,” “is,” and “am.” This means you don’t have to worry about what style guide to follow. You always capitalize “are” in a title.
Is “With” Capitalized in a Title?
“With” is a word that often trips me up in titles. It seems like half the time, I want to capitalize it. The other half, I don’t. There’s a reason for this, and I can blame it all on the style guides. Capitalizing “with” in a title depends on several factors.
The APA Style, Associated Press (AP), NYT, and AMA style guides state that propositions with four or more letters are always capitalized. So if you’re following any of those guides, capitalize “with” every time. (Like I did for this section’s subheading.)
However, both Bluebook and Wikipedia style guides state that prepositions with four or fewer words are always lowercase — unless they come at the beginning or end of the title or follow an end punctuation mark.
The Chicago Manual of Style and the Modern Language Association style books state that all propositions should be lowercase, no matter how many letters. Again, the same exceptions mentioned above apply.
Major vs Minor Words
Major and minor words remain mostly the same across all major style guides. It's whether you capitalize them or not that changes. But for a general rule of thumb, it's good to know that major words should be capitalized and minor ones should not. Here are some examples, according to the APA Style Guide.
- Major Words – Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, and words with four or more letters.
- Minor Words – Articles, conjunctions, short prepositions, and words with three or fewer words.
Most people are intimately familiar with sentence case, where the first letter of the first word in a given sentence is capitalized — along with any proper nouns that show up. Title case is different, and it varies across style guides. Luckily, there are some simple rules to keep in mind that won't steer you wrong.So whether you're wondering about a book title or a blog heading, just keep the rules above in mind. If you follow a certain style guide — or want to start following one — there are several major guides to choose from, including MLA Style, AP Style, Chicago Manual of Style, and the APA Style.