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The Correct Way to Capitalize a Headline

The Correct Way to Capitalize a Headline
Image credit: Saad Akhtar | Flickr
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If you are looking for a good jolt of writerly fear and dread, there’s no better place to start than theU.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual’s section on capitalization.

Though written with admirable precision, the manual offers far more detail than most of us want when trying to figure out on deadline what to capitalize. For instance:

3.56. The interjection “O” is always capitalized. Interjections within a sentence are not capitalized.

Sail on, O Ship of State!

For lo! the days are hastening on.

Yet when deciding how to capitalize a headline or the title of that autobiography you’re ghostwriting for your semiliterate CEO, you needn’t fall back on vaguely remembered lessons from your school days. (Gee, I seem to recall something about not capitalizing short words…)

Your three main options for capitalizing a headline aren’t all that difficult:

  • The Bookish Way. Think of a New York Times headline such as “Suspect Found Guilty in 2009 Bomb Plot in England,” or a title such as “How to Read a Book.” (If you don’t know, find someone to read it to you.)

  • The Ragan way, also known as AP style. Consider the hedder on this piece by our in-house Word Czar, executive editor Rob Reinalda: “Capital ideas, capital offenses: When to uppercase.”

  • The Throw Up Your Hands And Capitalize Everything Way, favored by hysterical bloggers and the editors of BuzzFeed. (“We Need To Acknowledge How Good Hilary Duff Looks On The Cover Of ‘Cosmo.’”)

Let’s look at these.

Bookish/Times-y

No, this does not mean you lowercase short words and uppercase everything else. The Chicago Manual of Style and style guides, this requires that you capitalize the following parts of speech, according to YourDictionary.com:

  • Nouns (man, bus, book)

  • Adjectives (angry, lovely, small)

  • Verbs (run, eat, sleep)

  • Adverbs (slowly, quickly, quietly)

  • Pronouns (he, she, its, her)

  • Subordinating conjunctions (as, because, that)

When in doubt, the government printing office offers a helpful general rule. Capitalize everything except for “the articles a, an, and the; the prepositions at, by, for, in, of, on, to, and up; the conjunctions and, as, but, if, or, and nor; and the second element of a compound numeral,” such as One Hundred Twenty-three Years (if spelled out).

Note that prepositions of four letters or longer, such as from or among, are capitalized. Also, up, which is both an adverb and an adjective, can be an exception. Your government offers this example: “Built-Up Stockpiles Are Necessary (Up is an adverb here).”

YourDictionary also offers some advanced rules, such as capitalizing a phrasal verb. Think of “How to Back Up a Computer.” (Again, up is the maverick.)

Check here for differences between Chicago and AP styles following colons, along with a helpful emoticon for an olive that rolled under the couch to be discovered next spring. 

The Ragan way

Or, if you must, AP style. The wire service boils down its rule succinctly: “AP headlines cap only first word and proper names or proper abbreviations.” Well, AP also capitalizes after a colon if the word starts a complete sentence.

Consider The Washington Post’s “ Decades of human waste have turned Mount Everest into a ‘fecal time bomb.’ ” Until the planet is obliterated in this stinky apocalypse, the rules remain straightforward. Mount Everest is a proper noun. Fecal time bombs are not.

The Hysterical Frenzy Of Capitalization

You’re not doing it that way, are you? Really? Not that we judge! But This One Tends To Be Pretty Self-Explanatory, We Think.


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