Getting the hang of Headline Style Capitalization

Newspapers sometimes get it right!
Newspapers sometimes get it right! | Source

So what is Headline Style?

According to Guy Kawasaki, one of the things that makes Indie auhors stand out (in a negative way) from traditionally published authors is improper headline style capitalization.


Yeah, me too, so I decided to study it to find out more.

Headline case or style is also known as sentence case or style. People and organisations differ in their rules about capitalizing titles and headlines in books. One of the most popular guides is the Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS), which is used by many publishers and academics. The other guides agree on some things in the CMoS – especially capitalizing the first and last words of the title – but tend to disagree about the small words.

Be aware that Microsoft differs in their approach to what is headline style! If you use Styles in a Microsoft Word document, it will apply a number of formatting changes but it won’t change the capitalization in the way that we are talking about here. (It is very important to use styles for your headings, though, as it will help formatting later on if you are converting the document into an eBook. See my article about Sigil for more help.)

If you have spare money – quite a bit of spare money! – it is worth buying the CoM. It goes into all this sort of thing and more. However it is a little hard to understand. They have a website that has a very useful Q&A section: Membership of the site does cost, but you can sign up for a 30-day free trial.

If you just need to know how to make your headlines looks more professional in your eBooks and paper books, read on.

Here is the CMoS’s explanation of the 7 principles of headline-style capitalization:

1. Capitalize the first and last words in titles and subtitles, e.g.

This is the Title

And this is the Subtitle

2. Always use lowercase for articles ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘an’.

3. Always use lowercase for prepositions except when they are used as adverbs or adjectives, eg.

Look Up


Look up

4. Always use lowercase for the conjunctions ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘for’, ‘or’ and ‘nor’. E.g.

From here to eternity and Back

5. Always use lowercase for ‘to’ and ‘as’.

6. Always lowercase any part of a proper name that would be put in lowercase in text. E.g.

Van de Burg

7. Always use lowercase for the second part of a species name (even if it is the last word in a title), e.g.

Pan troglodytes (Latin for Chimpanzee!)


Pan Troglodytes

CMoS's Examples:

Here are the examples that CMoS give, to make this a little easier to understand (but only a little!):

· A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing

· Four Theories concerning the Gospel according to Matthew

· Tired but Happy

· From Homo erectus to Homo sapiens: A Brief History

My Interpretation

To make this clearer, here’s my interpretation of the CMoS’s rules:

Use capitals for the first and last words in a title and lowercase for all words in between apart from names/places and action words.

To break that down:

  • Capitals for: First word; Last word; Names/Places; Action words.
  • Lowercase for: Very short words and words that join parts of a sentence (and, but, or)
  • If a capitalized word is hyphenated, capitalize both words.
  • Capitalize the first word after a colon or dash.

Does any of this matter? It does to some readers and those that don’t notice won’t mind whether you get it right or wrong - so you may as well try to get it right so as not to irritate the ones who notice these things!

Here’s About.Com on the subject:

"The difference between title case and every word in capitals is minor, and we think that very few of your users will notice. But Opt For Every Word In Capitals And A Few Of Your Users Will Find Themselves Mentally Correcting Every 'Wrongly' Capitalized Word. It's a bit like the use of apostrophes: most people don't notice whether or not you are 'correct'; some people definitely do and their irritation about your 'mistakes' will distract them from the smooth flow of questions and answers."

Lots of people don’t know the rules and over-simplify by using ALL CAPS or Capitalizing Every Word. Both of these can be difficult to read and it doesn’t take long to get to know the CoM rules.

If in doubt, stick to my interpretation:

Use capitals for the first and last words in a title and lowercase for all words in between apart from names/places and action words.

I hope that helps. I found it terribly confusing until I started putting it into practice, then it started to become a bit clearer.

Keep in mind that no-one is going to sue you over an incorrectly-capitalized word and just do your best!

If you are interested in self-publishing, Guy Kawasaki's book, 'APE', is brilliant. I highly recommend it.

Comments 2 comments

mscott45 profile image

mscott45 3 years ago from UK Author

Thank you! CMoS are surprising about things like this - they seem to lean towards lowercase for many more things than you would think. I've just debated this with someone and they think 'here' would e capitalized if it was a town called 'Here' but not otherwise. I'm with you, I'd be tempted to capitalize everything apart 'to' and 'and'. I think it is rather open to interpretation but acceptable as long as there is consistency.

rfmoran profile image

rfmoran 3 years ago from Long Island, New York

Great job Michele. I think we too often shoot from the hip. I like your formulation about capitalizing the first and last words and lc all in between except for names places and action words. BUT, I don't get this "From here to eternity and Back" Is not "here" and "eternity" places as used in this title? Voted up useful and awesome.

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