What Words Do You NOT Capitalize in a Title?

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what words do you capitalize in a title

Very few people (writers) know which words to or not to capitalize in a title or section headings. Usually, people just write the full title in caps or capitalize words which have three or more letters.

Post on social media and blogs usually get away with such mistakes, after all, who has time to police people on platforms where everyone just wants to have fun?

But as a professional writer or somebody writing academic papers, your knowledge and application of capitalization rules is of the essence. There are a lot of styles that have their title capitalization rules, and I recommend you know one style at the least (one applicable to your writing).

There is no mystery attached to these rules; they are simple and frequently used by most professional writers (you might even have used some of them unknowingly). 

Among the many areas that I have covered, I have introduced the major title capitalization styles to help you understand the basics. So, there’s no need for any crystal balls; no more wandering around the world wide web, searching for the perfect title capitalization formula.

Why Do We Not Capitalize Every Word in A Heading?

There are a couple of reasons—three, actually—why we don’t capitalize each and every word in a title or heading.

Capitalizing every word makes the text less legible and readable. We actually capitalize words to indicate emphasis and provide clarity, so if we capitalize each and every word regardless of their importance or the intended message, we’re flinging this clarity.

You could decide to switch to all caps if you have that liberty. As a matter of fact, a lot of writers have done it this way, but capitalizing each and every word only makes the text have a rough tone and appear obnoxious.

We usually use all-caps to indicate shouting or a bossy tone, so it would be appropriate when that’s the intention. Otherwise, it isn’t a good way to capitalize your titles.

How Do You Know What to Capitalize and What Not to?

If you are just writing your titles without following any rule, then it all boils down to preference—does the word feel that important for you to capitalize or not? Perhaps you just like to write your entire title in capital letters?

But as I have iterated already, there are capitalization rules which people use depending on preference or requirement. Some writers prefer the NY Times style because they’re journos or the APA style because they are writing an academic research paper and are required to use it.

Word processors usually have most of these rules programmed into them and all you have to do is indicate that a particular sentence is a title, the word processor identifies the words that you should and should not capitalize.

Examples of Correct Title Capitalization

To show you how correctly written titles look like—using generally accepted rules—I have listed a couple of examples.

They might be titles for books, poems, news articles, headings of a passage in a book or newspaper, etc.

example of correct title capitalization

The Seventh Sea: A Perilous Journey by the World’s Greatest Pirates.

When Curiosity Failed to Kill the Cat.

If you’re the title inside a paragraph or sentence, these are correct ways to write them:

Best of Dana was a famous book by Gina Lewinski.

“The Truth Behind the Helsinki Murders” is the only horror story in her collection.

He loves sitcoms and his favorite is Two and a Half Men.

There are a lot of different correct ways to capitalize, and I couldn’t fit all of them in this post but as long as you are following rules appropriate for the type of text that you’re writing, you’re good.

List of Words Not Capitalized in Titles

Although we have different capitalization styles, there are words which are generally capitalized and others not generally capitalize in titles.

The words in this bracket include:

  • Articles (a, an, the)
  • Short words (fewer than 4 letters)
  • Prepositions (at, by, to, etc.)
  • Coordinating Conjunctions (and, but, for)

Here’s the full list:

And, as, as if, as long as, at, but, by, even if, for, from, if, if only, in, into, like, near, now that, nor, of, off, on, on top of, once, onto, or, out of, over, past, so, so that, than, that, till, to, up, upon, with, when, yet.

Why Are Capitalization Rules Important?

For professional writers, reputation is—to a great extent—contingent on producing tidy work which conforms to generally accepted linguistic rules.

There are different styles of title capitalization rules for different genres, agencies, and associations. For example, if you are editing a page on Wikipedia, there are rules you must follow for your page to be legible.

Capitalization rules indicate tidiness, legibility, and professionalism.  Therefore, in many scenarios, they are usually one of the things that stand between you and success as a writer.

Different Styles of Title Capitalization Rules

There are four main title capitalization styles, namely Chicago style, APA style, MLA style, and AP style. I have also added NY times and Wikipedia styles in case one of my readers is a journo or edits Wikipedia pages.

4 styles of title capitalization rules (1)

It must also be noted that the title case capitalization or sentence case capitalization rules in each of these capitalization styles fractionally differ.

Here are the title capitalization rules classified by style.

Chicago Manual of Style Capitalization Rules

The Chicago Style is one of the most employed and venerated headline capitalization styles in journalism.

These are the title case rules according to this style:

  • Capitalize the first and the last word.
  • Capitalize nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinate conjunctions.
  • Lowercase articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions.
  • Lowercase the ‘to’ in an infinitive (I want to play guitar).

MLA Style Capitalization Rules

The MLA style requires that you capitalize:

  • The first word of the title or subtitle.
  • All major words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns).
  • The second part of hyphenated words (e.g., Self-Doubt)
  • All words of four letters or more.

APA Style Capitalization Rules

Capitalization of APA style titles follows these rules:

  • The first word of the title or subtitle should be capitalized.
  • All nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns should be capitalized.
  • Both parts of major hyphenated words (e.g., Self-Doubt).
  • Words with four letters or more should be capitalized.

AP Style Capitalization Rules

This is a style used by writers for the Associated Press. However, AP style capitalization rules are also employed by many other journalists.

The rules demand that you capitalize words with three or more letters, the first and last words, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinate conjunctions. Articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions should be lowercase.

Wikipedia Style Capitalization Rules

The following are the title capitalization rules that Wikipedia editors must follow:

  • All major words should be capitalized.
  • The first and last words should be capitalized.
  • Capitalize subordinate conjunctions.
  • Articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions should be lowercase.
  • The word “to” in an infinitive (e.g., I Want to Leave) should be lowercase.

NY Times Style Capitalization Rules

The capitalization for the NY Times style—which is, for the most part, used by writers for the NY Times—requires that you capitalize major words (e.g., nouns, pronouns, verbs), the first and last words, and subordinate conjunctions. Articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions should be lowercase.

This video explains how to properly capitalize a title using Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, and MLA guidelines.

Style Guide Differences and Exceptions Between the Major 3 Styles of Title Capitalization

Although the styles have a lot of similarities, they also have their differences, and it’s crucial to pay attention to these differences.

AP Stylebook

When you use the AP Stylebook, you’re supposed to use lowercase for all words with three letters or fewer in a title. But, if any of those short words happen to be verbs (like “is,” “are,” “was,” “be”), you should capitalize them.

Chicago Style

The Chicago style requires that you use lowercase for all prepositions except when they are the first or last word of the title. The length doesn’t matter in the case of prepositions and you have to use lowercase for words as lengthy as “between,” “throughout,” and other prepositions. 

MLA Style

MLA style has its own exception; words with three letters or fewer should always be in lowercase except when they are the first or last word of the title.

Write Your Titles the Write Way

There’s no need for you to memorize all the different capitalization styles, but you at least need to be aware of the generally accepted rules.

If it’s not compulsory for you to follow a particular style of capitalization, use the general rules provided by an established writer in your genre and make sure that you are consistent with your chosen style.

With consistency, everything becomes easier.

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Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories. She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.