Understanding Title Case: Which Words To Capitalize In A Title

Titles can be confusing—either due to length (we’re looking at you, Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet), punctuation (Leprechaun: Back 2 Tha Hood), or content (sigh, 2002’s Mr. Mom). But, titles can also stump readers and writers across the board due to title case—conventions of which words in a sentence start with capital letters.

Have no fear: We’ll walk you through the steps, one at a time, using some of our favorite ridiculous movie titles as examples. That way, you can apply the movie titles’ rules to songs, academic papers, and even PowerPoint headings to determine when to use title case.

1. Make sure the phrase you’re working with is actually a title.

According to APA, the following are titles that should be in title case:

  • Titles of works (books, movies, articles, songs, magazines)
  • Titles of academic tests or papers
  • Headings

Anything that doesn’t fall into one of those categories should be in sentence case—and if the name didn’t tip you off, that’s the opposite of title case. In sentence case, the only thing that should be capitalized is the sentence’s first word and any proper nouns.

2. Capitalize the first word in a title.

So, in the title The Perks of Being a Wallflower, make sure to capitalize The—it’s the very first word, and its capitalization tips off the reader that, hey, the title’s officially starting.

3. Capitalize all major words in a title.

How do we define a “major word”? Good question. A “major word” is a subject, noun, adjective, or verb—basically, any word whose meaning impacts the sentence and isn’t a short little conjunction or preposition.

In the title Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, “Tell,” “Mom,” “Babysitter,” and “Dead” are all major words—they’re verbs (tell), nouns (mom, babysitter), and adjectives (dead describes the babysitter), and they all very much impact the sentence’s meaning. Because of that, they should all be in title case.

4. While you’re at it, capitalize every word that is four letters or longer.

APA uses a a measuring stick for title case: If a word is longer than four letters, it automatically becomes “major.” So, even if the title of Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead was I Can’t Believe You Didn’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, didn’t (and can’t) would still be capitalized, even though they’re not as major as tell or dead—they’re four letters or longer, so they also go in title case.

5. Do a final skim for tricky punctuation that might change the rules of title case.

The English language—and its titles—are rarely simple. They’re often broken up by punctuation. Titles, in particular, often feature colons. Check out the following movie titles featuring colons:

  • Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  • Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  • Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me

Notice a pattern? Anything after the colon starts with a capital letter, like it’s a brand new sentence (or title)—even if it’s a minor, short word, like the in The Spy Who Shagged Me. The same goes for movie titles like Lust, Caution that feature a comma in the middle (or a hyphen, like The 40-Year-Old Virgin): anything after the punctuation is capitalized anew.

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