Title Capitalization

22:15 Fri 31 Jul 2009
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I capitalize the title of my blog posts (evidently), which means that five days a week I get to consider precisley how to do that. Often, as in today’s case, it’s simple and doesn’t require any thought. But sometimes it does, and—worse—sometimes it does but I don’t notice.

I have a reasonable intuitive grasp of when initial capitals should be applied and when they shouldn’t, but not a firm understanding of the rules governing this application. Naturally, this being a matter of both English grammar and writing style, the rules aren’t perfectly clear.

An example of one I just didn’t notice: “Moving From Word Processors to reStructuredText”. Generally the rule is to not capitalize prepositions (except when at the start of the title). Since “from” is a preposition, it shouldn’t be capitalized in that title. I’m not sure why it doesn’t look wrong to me, as “to” would if it were capitalized, but unless there’s an exception I’m unaware of, it’s wrong.

This means that I need to actually think about the capitalization of titles, rather than relying on my intuition to guide me. I need to remember that a) prepositions shouldn’t be capitalized, and b) “from” is a preposition.

The latter requires more thought than it should. The formal rules of English grammar, unlike the rules of English spelling, have never entirely worked their way into the depths of my brain.

Naturally, there are also plenty of edge cases, such as: “Crows Are Smart—And Hold Grudges”. I did think about this one, and decided to leave it as “And” despite the fact that it’s a conjunction, on the basis that its role in starting a new phrase in the middle of the title gave it special status. Is this correct? I actually don’t know.

While I don’t have a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, apparently the best resource for this particular issue, I do have a copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage (2003 edition), which I bought more or less as soon as I read “Tense Present” (I read the longer version in Consider the Lobster). Garner doesn’t explicitly address the rules for title capitalization when you’re writing your own titles, but does cover rules for “Up-Style Headings”, and I’ve decided that there’s no reason why those rules shouldn’t also work for the titles of my blog posts. His pointers on what to capitalize:

  • First and last words.
  • “That”.
  • “With” if it’s close to or used with “Without”
  • Everything else, except:
    • articles;
    • conjunctions;
    • prepositions shorter than five letters (usually); and
    • ‘to’ in infinitive form.

(Paraphrased from p128–130. Brian Garner. Garner’s Modern American Usage. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. )

Note that even here there’s a nod to how tricky it can be, with the “usually” rider in reference to the definition of short as five letters or less.

So, those are the rules I intend to follow from here on out. They still don’t tell me whether I was right or wrong about the title of “Crows Are Smart—And Hold Grudges”.

(Shamefully, this is the first time I’ve opened Garner’s Modern American Usage in years. It’s excellent, and since looking over capitalization I’ve found quite a few other tidbits, and now intend to both consult and peruse it regularly.)

2 Responses to “Title Capitalization”

  1. Helen Says:

    I have to admit, U.S. title capitalisation is a personal bugbear of mine. You don’t have to go all the way of the French, of course, and capitalise only the first letter (A la recherche du temps perdu), but American title capitalisation Looks To Me As Though The Author Couldn’t Figure Out Which Word Was Essential To The Story, So Capitalised Prepositions Just In Case. However, I should look at Garner! Fowler is my bible.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    The syndrome you cite isn’t correct American English, even if it is disturbingly common—although the example of a certain independent Irish feature film shows that it’s not purely an American phenomenon…

    It looks like Garner and Fowler might have similar attitudes, and I would be geekily fascinated by a comparison between the two.

    I note that the London Times mostly just capitalizes the first word of a headline, but their website today has the odd exception of “The 50 Biggest Movies of 2009”, and I don’t grasp the reasons for this exception. The Irish Times follows the same standard but again I spotted an odd exception: “Swine Stats From A Global Pandemic”.

    My personal preference is for the American style (meaning the rules summarized by Garner); for whatever reason it just feels right that headlines and titles share the same rules.

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