Crazy from the Heat: An Attempt to Parse the Rules of Title Case

Unusual heat has the home office in its grip the last few days, but I’m excited about it. Not only does it give me an excuse for being a little late with this month’s note, but I also blame it for my frequent issues with this month’s subject matter: appropriate capitalization in titles.

If you go back over my past blog posts here, you’ll probably notice some inconsistencies in my title capitalization. It’s not really my fault, of course; it’s the heat. My brain cells aren’t dealing with the labyrinth of title capitalization rules very well. Still, I’m going to try to set out those rules, as the Chicago Manual espouses them, for our reference here.

1. Capitalize the first word. This includes the first word after the semicolon. I know that doesn’t seem all that complicated, but we have to start somewhere.

2. Capitalize the last word. This one is a little less intuitive, I think, but roll with it.

3. Capitalize all the “major words.” If you have to ask, it’s probably a major word.

4. The following are not major words: the articles, prepositions, conjunctions, the words “to” and “as,” and portions of names that would be in lowercase in any event, like the “von” in “von Trapp.”

I tend to read these rules in order, by which I mean that “von” would of course be capitalized if it were at the beginning of the title. I still cringe at leaving a word like “between” in lowercase because it’s not a short word. As a teen reporter, I worked with the Associated Press rules, which capitalize words longer than three letters. Those were good times when they lasted, and for those of you using AP style for whatever reason, the good times live on.

Bear in mind that a preposition is only a preposition when it has an object. If it’s an adverb, as the word “down” would be in the phrase “step down,” then it’s capitalized.

If you have a hyphenated word in your title, you will likely be capitalizing the word that comes after the hyphen, unless that word is a preposition or a conjunction or an article (which would be weird, wouldn’t it?). If the first part of your hyphenate is just a prefix (and it wouldn’t be a word by itself), then don’t capitalize the second part.

But what about the italics?

My rule of thumb is to italicize the longer works and put the shorter ones in quotation marks. Italicize the title of a blog, but put the post’s title in quotation marks. Italicize the album title, but the titles of its songs go in quotation marks. Italicize a book’s title, but put the titles of articles in quotation marks. The names of websites and their component parts, however, don’t take italics or quotation marks, just to be difficult.

Anyone need a cool beverage yet? I need to draw myself a picture. I’m not sure why this particular set of rules keeps me so confused, but I bet laziness has a hand in it. God knows it’s easier just to capitalize everything and be done with it. But I’m going to try to do better. I promise.

Just don’t ask me to get rid of the colon. I know they’re kind of dated, but I’m attached to them nonetheless.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style every month. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.