Rules for Capitalization in Titles

Capitalization is an integral part in the process of writing an academic paper. It gives emphasis to words that serve as variables of your paper. Without proper capitalization, your paper can be considered informal. Many are confused with capitalization with regard to titles, be it sentence case or title case. To adhere with the standards of academic writing, the rules for capitalization in titles must always be applied.

Title Case vs. Sentence Case

Before discussing the rules for capitalization in titles, let us first discuss the differences between a title case and a sentence case. The rules on title case varies depending on the style guide you wish to follow. But to give you an overview, the first letter of the first word and the major words are capitalized in a title case.

                This is an Example of Title Case

A title case, also known as upstyle, is used to capitalize the following:

  • Headings
  • Titles of periodicals (e.g. newspapers, journals, magazines)
  • Titles of tests or inventories
  • References
  • Titles of academic paper and the sections within it (e.g. Scope and Limitation) 
  • Book titles 
  • Article titles

Sentence case, on the other hand, uses lower case more frequently and is used in titles of references appearing on a reference list. In sentence case, the first letter of the first word is capitalized as well as pronouns and the rest is in lower case—like that of a sentence.

                This is an example of sentence case

Although the concept of title case and sentence case is almost the same in all style guides, there are differences when it comes to rules regarding prepositions, and major and minor words. The differences are so small that they are almost unnoticeable. But on applying rules for capitalization in titles, you must always be consistent in following the style guide that you will choose. Take note, you cannot mix several style guides on a single paper unless a specific style guide recommends you to do so.

Recommended style guides

What are style guides and what style guides should be followed? Style guides or manual of styles are sets of standards for writing, formatting, and designing documents. Style guides are important in terms of consistency. Following a specific style guide when writing an academic paper is proved to be practical. Having a certain style guide as a guideline can help you write cohesively—coherence is important in presenting your ideas, arguments, or facts systematically or logically. 

There are several style guides but the most commonly used are American Psychological Association Style (APA),  Chicago Manual of Style, and Modern Language Style (MLA). 

American Psychological Association Style (APA)

APA style was created on 1929 by a group of anthropologists and psychologists in hopes of making scientific papers easier to read. They created a set of procedures that are to be followed when writing scientific papers. APA style covers not only scientific papers but also academic papers in other fields. In terms of editorial manuscripts, APA style is one of the most commonly observed style by publishers and scholars specially in terms of titles and in-text citation titles. APA style is best used in research papers and thesis in social sciences like anthropology, psychology, and sociology.

Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style also known as CMS was published in 1906 by the University of Chicago Press. It focuses on using American English on editorial practice and grammar and usage as well as manuscript preparation and citation formatting. Chicago Manual of Style's rules in bibliography is often preferred in academic papers on social sciences like historical journals and literature reviews. The unique feature of CMS is that it allows writers and publishers to incorporate other style guides like APA and MLA on in-text citations and footnotes. 

MLA Style Manual

MLA was created by Modern Language Association to serve as pattern for scholars, students, and researchers in the field of language and literature in formatting their papers. MLA is the ultimate style guide for scholarly publishing as it includes rules and standards for submitting work. Most researches use MLA format for their research paper heading and standalone title page. When a professor does not require a format for the title page, it’s best to use MLA style.

Associated Press Style (AP)

Many people mistake APA style and AP style as the same, but they're not. AP style is commonly used in publications like newspapers, journals, etc. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law also known as AP Stylebook was created by American journalists in 1864 to standardize mass communications. It originally served as reference for journalists but was later on adopted by corporations in terms of public relations. The Stylebook contains basic rules on grammar and punctuation. It also discusses the principles of reporting. Styles, rules and definitions for abbreviation, capitalization, numerals, and spelling are also included in the stylebook.

Rules for Title Case capitalization

Before discussing the rules for title case capitalization, we shall clarify the difference between a title and a heading. A title is an honorific, can be prefix or suffix, that is added to a person’s name to signify their position, veneration, or academic or professional qualification while a heading pertains to the title of an academic papers, documents, articles, books, etc.

APA Style Title Case

In APA Style, major words are capitalized and minor words are in lower case. Note that all words of four letters or more are considered major words. The following are also considered major words:

  • Nouns - In APA title case, both common nouns and proper nouns are capitalized. 

   
              E.g. The Wizard of Oz

The word “wizard” is a common noun since it is a generic name for a type of person. The word “Oz” on the other hand is a proper noun since it is a name of a place. Note that both words are capitalized.

  • Verbs (including linking verbs) - Verbs are words pertaining to an action and linking verbs express a state of being. Linking verbs are used to express relationship between the noun or the subject and other words describing it. Common linking verbs are; am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been.

     
E.g. I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere

The word “were” a linking verb since it expresses relationship between the subject (someone) and the verb (waiting) thus, it is capitalized along with the verb. 

  • Adjectives - Adjectives are words used to describe a noun or a pronoun. 

     
E.g. The Little Prince

The word “little” is used to describe the noun which is the prince. 

  • Adverbs - Adverbs are words used as modifiers or qualifiers of adjectives, verbs, clauses, other adverbs, and phrases. Determiners and adjectives that directly modify a noun are not considered as adverbs. Adverbs often end in -ly.

     
E.g. Walking Past the Extremely Cold Niveous Street

The word “extremely” modified the meaning of the word “cold” by implying a higher degree of coldness.

  • Pronouns - Pronouns are words that can function independently, used as substitute for nouns.

     
E.g. Henry VIII: The King and His Court

The word “his” is a pronoun and is used to substitute “king” which is a noun.

Minor words are always written in lower case so that major words are given emphasis. The following are considered minor words:

  • Short words - Words that are three letters and below are always in lower case.
  • Conjunctions - Conjunctions are words used to link clauses together.

     
E.g. and, but, if

  • Short Prepositions - Prepositions are words used to link phrases, pronouns, or nouns to other words. 

     
E.g. on, in, to

  • Articles - Articles are words that specify a noun. 

       
E.g. Purchasing the chair is practical. 

                     Purchasing chair is practical.

Both the and are articles that define noun, but using the made the statement more specific. In the first example, the speaker is pertaining to the chair they specifically bought. In the second example, the speaker is creating a general statement by using a

Chicago Manual of Style Title Case

The Chicago Manual of Style imposes the same rules as APA when it comes to nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs. However, they specified the capitalization of the following:

  • Hyphenated compound words - In the rule for capitalization in hyphenated compound words, the second word of a compound word must also be capitalized. 

                

E.g. Struggles of a Student-Athlete

 Being the second word in a hyphenated compound word, the word “athlete” is capitalized. 

  • Compound numbers - Capitalize both elements of compound numbers.

                

E.g. Twenty-One 


  • Scientific names - If a scientific name is mentioned, the second portion of the name must also be capitalized. 

                

E.g. The Medicinal use of Cannabis Sativa 

                                

Cannabis Sativa is the scientific term of the controversial plant, Marijuana. 

  • Prepositions functioning as adverbs are capitalized - A term following a noun is a preposition.


MLA Style Manual Title Case

Just like the previously mentioned style guides, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, pronouns, and nouns are capitalized in MLA Style. However, MLA specifically discussed the capitalization of the following:

  • First word - MLA title case is often used in standalone title pages which is why the MLA style guide strictly discussed the importance of capitalizing the first word of the title for aesthetic purposes. 
  • Last word - For aesthetic purposes, MLA also implied that the last word of a title must always be capitalized. 

               
E.g. A Correlative Study on Legalization of Marijuana on First World Countries and Third World Countries

In this research paper title, the last word is “countries” thus, it is capitalized. 

  • Principal words - Since MLA is often used in scholarly publishing, the importance of capitalizing principal words is also specified in the MLA style guide. Principal words pertain to the main subject in the title, or what you call “variables” in a research paper.

                

E.g. A Correlative Study on Legalization of Marijuana on First World Countries and Third World Countries

 In this example, the principal words are legalization, marijuana, first world, and third world.

  • Subordinating conjunctions - Subordinating conjunctions are words used to introduce a subordinate clause.

               
E.g. although, because

Words that are always written in lower case:

  • Articles
  • Coordinating conjunctions
  • Prepositions
  • Infinitives - Infinitives are verbs that have different roles and don’t act as verbs. Infinitives are usually composed of two words (to + verb) and act as noun, adjective or adverb. The word “to” must always be written in lower case. 

               
E.g. to walk, to sleep, to run


AP Style Title Case

The AP Style rules for capitalization is almost the same as MLA. Nouns, adverbs, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, and subordinating conjunctions are capitalized. However, AP Style has been specific in the following:

  • Alternative headline capitalization – Alternative headlines are commonly used in news articles. An alternative headline must be written like a sentence case with nouns including pronouns capitalized.
  • Referencing titles - When referencing a title, the title must be written exactly how it appears in the publication. 

Rules for Sentence Case capitalization

Sentence case is used for headings and titles of work. Generally, a sentence case’ capitalization is same as a sentence but some style guides have made rules on specific cases.

APA Style, and AP Style

These two style guides follow the same principle when it comes to sentence case capitalization:

  • All nouns including pronouns are capitalized; and
  • First letter of the first word must always be capitalized.

MLA Style Manual and Chicago Manual of Style

MLA and Chicago follow the same principle mainly for consistency:

  • English work titles are always in title case;
  • Work titles in other languages are always in sentence style; and
  • Common nouns are written in lower case.

The reason for this rule is that it is hard to determine the common nouns and proper nouns of other languages. Some languages that have the same words with the same meaning have different rules in capitalizing those words so to avoid confusion, it has been imposed that work titles of other languages shall remain in the form of sentence case.

Honorifics

Honorifics are titles given to a person to convey respect or courtesy (e.g. President Donald Trump). The different style guides have a universal rule when it comes to honorifics—titles that directly precede a name are capitalized. An honorific that comes after a name shall be in lower case (e.g. James Howell, associate professor in literature).

For a more elaborate example of capitalization incorporated in an essay, observe how this article was written. For this article, APA Style was followed. The headings are written in APA Style sentence case.

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