There are many rules surrounding what to capitalize in a sentence, but specific rules apply to titles in general — and often cause confusion with new writers and English language learners.
Titles include formal titles concerning the names of people or places, as well as the titles of books, speeches, albums, art, and other formally named creations. Knowing what words should be capitalized in a title is important for proper grammar and presentation of your writing.
Let’s review the basics of capitalization and then focus specifically on capitalization rules for titles.
General Rules of Capitalization
Capitalization is a lesson taught to beginning English writers, and there are three common rules to remember:
- The first word of every sentence is capitalized
- The initial letters of all proper nouns are capitalized
- The pronoun I is capitalized
Titles fall under the rule of proper nouns, but titles can be lengthy, leading to the question of which words are NOT capitalized in a title.
We are first going to learn how to recognize the titles used with people. Then we delve deeper into titles of works to help you discern which words require capitalization and which do not.
When to Use Capitalization for the Titles of People
The names of people are considered a proper noun, but did you also know that any title associated with the name is also considered an extension of their name?
Rule 1: A Person’s Title
When a title precedes a person’s name, you must capitalize the title. You also must capitalize it when used alone as a direct address.
- Make sure to ask Mister Smith if he will be available for tutoring.
- We decided to ask Principal Kaney for help with the petition since he always gave good advice.
- The Principal’s approval was needed in order to appear at the next community meeting.
- Our questions were directed towards State Representative Michael Jones, who voted for a House Bill we didn’t agree with.
- The State Representative decided to hold a public forum to address concerns.
Do not capitalize titles if they are used as a general reference and are not related to a specific person.
- We will be holding interviews to fill the vacant principal’s position.
- The next elections will contain options for a new state representative.
Rule #2: A Government Title
High government official titles are considered a proper noun whether they are tied to a specific person or not. These are capitalized even when they are not used in a direct address.
- There are only two years until we vote for a new President.
- It will be many years before there is a new Queen of England.
- Supreme Court Justices must be nominated and voted upon.
Rule #3: Compound Titles
All words in a compound title should be capitalized unless a prefix or suffix is added.
- ex-Governor Johnson
- Vice Principal Byers
Rule #4: Familial Relationship Titles
Familial relationships should be capitalized if they refer to a specific person. If they are preceded by a possessive noun or pronoun, leave them lowercase.
- I’m excited to visit my Uncle Ken this summer on the lake!
- My children’s uncle always takes them for boat rides.
Rule #5: Abbreviated Titles
Always capitalize abbreviations of titles before and after names.
- Senator Smith = Sen. Smith
- Governor Jones = Gov. Jones
- Mister Johnson = Mr. Johnson
- Mister Argyle Senior = Mr. Argyle Sr.
With Formal Titles of Creations or Labels
Formal titles include written works, speeches, art, and courses or classes being taught. There are some basic, yet important rules to follow concerning which words should be capitalized.
Rule #1: Course or Class Titles
Classes must be capitalized if the course is a language course or if the course is followed by a number. Courses that contain proper nouns should also be capitalized. Otherwise, leave it lowercase.
- Creative Writing 101
- New Mexico History
Rule #2: Written, Spoken, and Creative Titles
According to most English-style guides, book titles, article titles, publications, and works of art should always be capitalized. Use up-style capitalization in these cases; that is, capitalize the first letter of the first and last words and of all words besides short (fewer than five or so letters) articles, conjunctions, and prepositions. Short verbs, nouns, adverbs, and adjectives should be capitalized.
Let’s look at examples of this:
The First and Last Word of Titles, Headings, and Subtitles are Capitalized
- The Count of Monte Cristo
- A Separate Piece
- Wuthering Heights
- History 101: The Complete First Edition
Nouns, Verbs, Adverbs, and Adjectives are Capitalized
- The Incident at Owl Creek
- Mouse Goes to School
- Her Beautifully Bright Life
- The Running Man
Prepositions Four or More Letters Long are Capitalized
Although the Chicago Manual of Style usage guide says to keep all prepositions lowercase, the AP Style Guide prefers all prepositions four or more letters long should be capitalized. This is the better style guide variation option.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- The Bridge Beneath the Ridge
The First Word After a Colon, Dash, or End Marks are Capitalized
- The Guide: Referencing New Citations – Lesson 1
The Second Part of Hyphenated Words are Capitalized
- The Two-Fold Heist
- Seventy-Two Red Balloons
Subordinating Conjunctions Like, As, or Because are Capitalized
- Love Like Me
- The Word As it Turns
When Not to Use Capitalization
As you’ve seen above, not all words in a formal title are capitalized. Make sure you know which word to leave lowercase.
Do Not Capitalize Coordinating Conjunctions
Unless they are the first or last word in a title, the coordinating conjunctions but, and, nor, or, for, so, as, if, and yet should be lowercase
Do Not Capitalize Articles
Unless they are the first or last word in a title, the articles a, an, and the should be lowercase.
Do Not Capitalize Short Prepositions
Unless they are the first or last word in a title, all prepositions shorter than four words should be lowercase. These include as, at, by, for, of, off, in, per, to, on, up, and via.
The titles of people, works, and labels should be correctly capitalized to provide the proper emphasis to your reader. It is important to know that what you are writing is referring to a proper noun or formal description.
People’s names and creations are important, and properly capitalizing provides your reader insight to what you are referring to. Hopefully, these sets of rules are exactly what you needed to double-check your own work and ensure you are using the common capitalization rules of titles correctly.