• Holly Hosler

Capitalizing Titles & Headlines

Girl reading a book without a title

Think you know how to use title case? Test yourself. How would you capitalize the following (fictitious) title?

an understanding of hormones: a short essay about the endocrine system

My suspicion is that most people would write this as:

An Understanding of Hormones: a Short Essay about the Endocrine System

Why would you capitalize this title this way? It's probably because you've learned these rules:

  1. Capitalize the first word in a title.

  2. Capitalize the last word in a title.

  3. Capitalize the important words in a title.

However in this example, those rules, while all true, are just the start. Let's investigate why.

First, what counts as an "important" word? How do you know what the definition of "important" should be? It depends on your style guide, of course. I'm going to assume that your integrated marketing and communications department's official style guide relies heavily on Associated Press style, as that approach helps media outlets more seamlessly pick up your press releases.

According to AP style, prepositions -- words that refer to where something moves and are usually short; here's a full list -- that are four letters or longer should be capitalized when part of a headline or title. So while the usual short prepositions such as in, by, for and of are not capitalized unless they are the first or last word of the headline or title, prepositions comprising four or more letters should be capitalized. (Thankfully, this is APA style too.) If you weren't a journalism major, I bet you didn't know that, did you?

Therefore, in this case, the word about needs to be capitalized: Short Essay About the Endocrine System.

Secondly, what about the word a in this title? While it's true that it's an article and does not begin or end the title, it also appears after a colon. It begins what is effectively a subtitle. In other words, you could think of this title being represented as:

An Understanding of Hormones

A Short Essay About the Endocrine System

Because of this, the word that follows a colon in a title or headline should also be capitalized.

Therefore, in most cases (and we'll get to a couple other cases below), this title should be capitalized as:

An Understanding of Hormones: A Short Essay About the Endocrine System

Got that? Good. Because now I'm going to confuse you (well, hopefully not).

Exception #1: AMA Citations

What if the title in question is of a scholarly work that you are citing in an end note or bibliography? In that case, you would default to American Medical Association style, which is to only capitalize the first letter of the title unless other proper name or medical abbreviation capitalization is necessary. For example, in this citation, only the first letter of the title and HIV are capitalized:

Sigel KM, et al. Short-term outcomes for lung cancer resection surgery in HIV infection. AIDS. 2019 Mar 15. doi: 10.1097/QAD.0000000000002200

Exception #2: The World Wide Web

When it comes to website titles, headings and subheads, it used to be a search engine optimization (SEO) best practice to capitalize every single word. Yes, even the indefinite articles. This seems to have changed in only the past few months (by the latter half of 2018), but some people still say that capitalizing each word in a title provides better readability. I've even noticed this practice in print newspaper headlines, so they may have a point. In some situations, while not stylistically correct, you should opt for making your titles and headlines as readable as possible. This is particularly true for print ads, where any style or grammar rule can be broken as long as you're aware of what you're doing.

An Understanding Of Hormones: A Short Essay About The Endocrine System

See how that's easy to read? You'll often see paid Google search ads conform to this practice.

I hope this post has given you a better understanding of which words to capitalize or not in a title or headline. If you're stuck with your healthcare copywriting and could use an expert to help, drop me an email at hhosler@hollyhosler.com.

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