Thursday, July 12, 2012

To Hit the Headlines

The title and other headings of a document are generally expected to stand out. So, among other things, people like to use some capital letters in them. But which letters do you put in upper case, and which not? There seem to be several styles in this regard.

Sometimes you find that all the letters of a title are capitalised.


In other cases, only the initial letter of a title is in capital form (unless of course it contains any other word - like a name - that must begin with a capital letter).

The rise and fall of socialism

The rainfall statistics of India

However, this pattern is sometimes preferred for sub-headings as the emphasis given in this manner is considered insufficient for main headings and titles. So some sources - in particular American ones -  favour a style where all the words of a main headline begin with a capital letter.

The Rise And Fall Of Socialism

Simple and effective as these methods are, they're not to everyone's liking. Some seem to think it's more appropriate to capitalise the initial letters of important words. The trouble begins when deciding which of the words should be considered important. Once again several different styles are in use. Let's see the common norms of this selective method first.

(1) Capitalise all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (if, because, as, that...).

(2) Capitalise the first and the last words no matter what type they are. 

Now we'll turn to what's not to be capitalised. One rule says that articles, prepositions and coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so - denoted by 'FANBOYS') are always lower case (unless of course they’re the first or the last word of the title). Although articles and coordinating conjunctions are treated like this by almost everyone using a selective capitalisation style, there are differences when it comes to prepositions. While some such writers put them all in lower case, others tend to capitalise those with four letters or more; still others do so only when they have at least five letters.

Gone with the Wind
Gone With the Wind

Much Ado about Nothing 
Much Ado About Nothing

However, even a short preposition has to begin with a capital letters if it occurs as the last word.

Things We Are Proud Of

Care should also be taken not to put words like 'be' (verb), 'is' (verb) and 'it' (pronoun) in lower case just because they're short.

How to Be Punctual  

What It Is Supposed to Be in Ten Years 

Also consider the following:  

A Cruise up the Nile (Here 'up' functions as a preposition.) 

How to Put a Picture Up on a Wall (Here 'up' is an adverb for the verb 'put'.) 

How to Set Up a Computer (Here 'up' is part of the phrasal verb 'set up' - and used adverbially.)

So if you're not quite sure about the function of these short words in a particular context, it might be better to avoid the selective styles and settle for one of the methods mentioned earlier. And it's important to select your style and stick to it within a document.

(Image credit: Unlisted Sightings)


  1. When I was working as a graphic artist, I used two or three methods based on the heading itself. Most of the times, I made the entire heading in uppercase. And it varied on the customers desire.

    1. Various publications also follow their in-house styles. Most base theirs on well-known style guides like the Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook, Economist Style Guide etc.


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