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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 movie titles (some ridiculous, some not) 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.

What words to capitalize in a title

The first thing we want to know is what exactly counts as a “title.” According to most major style guides, “titles” includes the proper names of creative works like movies, books, songs, magazines, video games, podcasts, and articles. “Titles” may also include the titles of scientific papers, the titles of academic tests, and possibly the headings in essays or slideshows.

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.

For a lot of writers, title capitalization becomes a tricky issue when a piece of writing has to follow a certain style guide. Each of the common style guides (APA, AP, Chicago, and MLA) has its own approach toward capitalization. However, there are some rules these style guides do agree on.

Take advantage on this moment to review the general rules for capitalizing as well.

Capitalize the first and sometimes the last word

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. As for the last word, Chicago and AP Style recommend always capitalizing it while MLA and APA style do not unless it fits into another rule that says you should.

Capitalize nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions

The rules for title capitalization divide words as major and minor. For the most part, major words are capitalized while minor words are not. How do we define a “major word”? Good question. A “major word” is a noun, pronoun, adverb, adjective, or verb—basically, any word whose meaning impacts the sentence. Most major style guides also recommend capitalizing subordinating conjunctions, which can include words like because or if.  So in a movie title like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you’d capitalize the adjectives and nouns.

Capitalize words that have four letters or more

Major words are also those that are four letters long or longer, according to most major style guides.

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.

Capitalize the first word following a colon

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

  • Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo
  • Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World  
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon

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 Far Side of the World. Generally speaking, subtitles typically follow the same capitalization rules that apply to titles.

Capitalize the second word in a hyphenated compound

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. So each word in The Break-Up and Ant-Man is capitalized. That being said, most style guides recommend not capitalizing a word that follows a hyphenated prefix, as in the word Anti-hero.

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What words not to capitalize in a title

Don’t capitalize articles (a, an, the)

Articles are considered minor words, which means they are lowercased. For example, in the title Snakes on a Plane, the word a is lowercased. Remember, though, that these words would be capitalized if they are the first word of a title as in The Hunger Games.

Don’t capitalize coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, so, or, nor, yet)

Coordinating conjunctions connect two grammatical elements of identical construction, as in Three Men and a Baby.

Don’t capitalize prepositions (at, by, to, etc.)

Likewise, prepositions should not be capitalized—unless a style guide recommends capitalizing them if they are a long word. With a title like The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain (yes, this is real), you’ll note the pronoun (our) is capitalized, while the prepositions are not (of, in). If your style guide recommends capitalizing long words, you’d want to capitalize the preposition through in Alice Through the Looking Glass and A River Runs Through It because it is longer than four letters.

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Are job titles capitalized?

In general, the rules for titles of jobs are fairly straightforward. Most style guides recommend capitalizing a job title when used to refer to a specific person and not capitalizing it when it is being used to refer to a job generally or in place of a person’s name. In practice, this typically means that you only capitalize a job title if it is used immediately before a person’s name.  For example:

  • Vice President John Smith led the press conference.
  • The vice president led the press conference.
  • The press conference was led by John Smith, the vice president.

You need to be careful of a sentence that uses a job title in a general manner before a person’s name. For example:

  • The press conference was led by the vice president, John Smith.

If you’re feeling frustrated about title case, just wait until you try explaining punctuation rules in titles. You’ll have to solve the mystery of why Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is punctuated that way.

Winter, spring, summer, or fall ... all you need to do is call upon this article to know when to capitalize the seasons.

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