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Posted on Mar 03, 2023

Title Capitalization Rules: Learn Which Words To Capitalize

Like many aspects of the English language, title capitalization rules can seem confusing and unintuitive. While the words that are (and are not) capitalized in a title aren’t always consistent, it’s really not as complicated as you might think.

Whether you’re titling a book, writing a headline for a blog post or article, or referring to a movie, song, or other published work, you’ll need to follow standard title capitalization rules. To help you along, let’s break down the basic rules and explain some exceptions. 

These are the three title capitalization rules you’ll need to remember:

  1. Capitalize the first and last words of a title
  2. Capitalize verbs, pronouns, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs
  3. Don’t capitalize articles, coordinating conjunctions, or prepositions

1. Capitalize the first and last words of a title

The simplest rule you can follow with complete certainty is this: the first and last words of a title are always capitalized. It doesn’t matter what length the title is or what grammatical role the word plays. From the humble article “the” to longer nouns like “tyrannosaurus,” you’re 100% safe capitalizing the first and last word.

Example: Andy Williams’s 1966 hit single, “Music to Watch Girls By

All style guides agree on this rule, and it’s because it just makes sense. By capitalizing the first and last words, you create a visual mark that shows the reader where the title begins and ends. Even if it’s used within a longer sentence, it can’t be confused with the text surrounding it.

💡 Note: When words are capitalized to form a title, their format is called “title case” or “headline case.” This is in contrast to “sentence case,” which is what you’ll see in this very paragraph.

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Capitalize the first word of subtitles, too

The rule for subtitles is very simple: the subtitle’s first word is also always capitalized, no exceptions. Subtitles, written after a colon, are especially common in nonfiction books and academic works. 

Example: Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s classic work of feminist literary criticism,  “The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.” 

If this title was written in sentence case, the first word after the colon would not normally be capitalized. And if we were following rule number 3 (spoiler alert), the word “the” would be in lowercase.

If you’re worried about your institution’s style guide of choice, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Capitalizing the first word of a subtitle is one of those rules where APA, MLA, Chicago, and AP style guides are in beautiful, unanimous agreement.

This is not the only rule they agree on — the next one is also universal.

2. Capitalize verbs, pronouns, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs

There are many common parts of speech that are always capitalized in a title. Let’s take a quick look at them, one by one.

Verbs

The ‘action words’ of language, verbs are capitalized in every style guide. This also applies to phrasal verbs, where a verb and a preposition are used together, like “Get Up,” “Stand Up,” “Let Go,” and “Carry Out.”

A commonly asked question is whether the word “is” needs to be capitalized. “Is” and its cousins (“I am,” “you are,” etc.) are all conjugated forms of the verb “to be,” so the answer is yes. The same applies to the verb “do” and its variations “did” and “does.”

Two identical covers for "This Is How You Lose the Time War" contrasted side by side... except the one on the left hasn't capitalized "Is." Boooo!
The publishers of “This Is How You Lose the Time War” quickly and quietly released a corrected cover — except the former version is still uploaded on the book’s Goodreads page. 😅

Here are a few examples of book titles that include verbs:

  • “This Is How You Lose the Time War” by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
  • “Where'd You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple
  • Don’t Cry for Me” by Daniel Black
  • “I'll Tell You in Person” by Chloe Caldwell
  • Do You Want to Start a Scandal” by Tessa Dare
  •  “History Is All You Left Me” by Adam Silvera

Pronouns

All style guides agree on capitalizing pronouns in titles. If you’re a native speaker, it’s possible you assume the term simply refers to “he,” “she,” “they,” and “his,” “hers,” and “theirs.” These are pronouns indeed, but there are many more types.

Subject pronouns Object pronouns Possessive pronouns Reflexive pronouns
I Me Mine Myself
You You Yours Yourself
She/he/it Her/him/it Hers/his/not used Herself/himself/itself
We Us Ours Ourselves
You You Yours Yourselves
They Them Theirs Themselves

We won’t dwell (no one likes a grammar lesson), but to learn more about further types of pronouns, like relative, indefinite, demonstrative, or interrogative pronouns, you can check out Thesaurus.com’s entry on pronoun types. Fun fact: words like “someone,” “whenever,” “whose,” and “whom” are pronouns, too. Hopefully, this knowledge will come in handy when you next capitalize a tricky title.

Still from Shakira's video clip for 'Whenever, Wherever,' showing her smiling mid-dance
“Whenever, Wherever…” — in addition to her general badassery, Shakira also knows her pronouns.

Here are a few examples of book titles with pronouns:

  • “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D. Taylor
  • “Guess How Much I Love You” by Sam McBratney
  • “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston 
  • “Go Tell It on the Mountain” by James Baldwin 
  • Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good” by Jan Karon

If you do happen to like grammar lessons, however, check out this article about the Oxford comma to learn more about when and how to use it like a pro.

Nouns and adjectives

You already know these ones, so we won’t patronize you. They’re also straightforward when it comes to capitalization: nouns and adjectives are capitalized in all style guides. Wonderful, right?

Let’s look at a few title examples that feature nouns:

  • “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
  • “How the García Girls Lost Their Accents” by Julia Alvarez
  • “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” by Italo Calvino
  • Diary of a Young Naturalist” by Dara McAnulty

And some book titles that capitalize adjectives:

  • “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote
  • “A Cavern of Black Ice” by J. V. Jones
  • “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” by Scott McCloud
  • “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon

Adverbs 

You may know adverbs as the words that end in -ly. They describe the way or manner in which something is done or happens. Just don’t forget that adverbs of manner aren’t the only type of adverb. 

If your title includes any of the words below, you’re dealing with adverbs of frequency, time, place, or degree:

Adverbs of time Adverbs of frequency Adverbs of place Adverbs of degree
  • Today
  • Tomorrow
  • Tonight
  • Yesterday
  • Last Year
  • Now
  • Earlier
  • Later
  • Lately
  • Recently
  • Soon
  • Often
  • Usually
  • Frequently
  • Generally
  • Always
  • Never
  • Hardly ever
  • Seldom
  • Sometimes
  • Rarely
  • Occasionally
  • Here
  • There
  • Everywhere
  • Anywhere
  • Nowhere
  • Elsewhere
  • Somewhere
  • Above
  • Inside
  • Out
  • Outside
  • Hardly
  • Almost
  • Enough
  • Just
  • Nearly
  • Quite
  • Little
  • So
  • Very
  • Too
  • Rather

You don’t need to remember what category each adverb falls under — you just need to be able to recognize them as an adverb, since all adverbs are capitalized across all style guides.

Here are a few titles that feature adverbs, whether they end in -ly or not:

  • “Isla and the Happily Ever After” by Stephanie Perkins
  • “A Fairly Honourable Defeat” by Iris Murdoch
  • Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin
  • “A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York” by Anjelica Huston

So far, we’ve looked at the two major rules where all style guides agree: capitalizing the first and final words of a title, as well as any “principal” or important words, like nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs. The next rule is where it gets a little bit more complicated.

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3. Don’t capitalize articles, coordinating conjunctions, or prepositions

Unless you’re working with a style guide that says otherwise (or if they’re the first or final word in a title), the following types of words are not capitalized:

  • Articles — the tiny words that come before nouns to indicate whether it’s a general concept or a particular, specific thing, e.g., “the garden” vs. “a garden”
  • Prepositions — words that precede nouns to show direction or place, or to establish a relationship between two things, e.g., “opposite the library,” “next to the cat” 
  • Coordinating conjunctions — words that link two parts of a sentence that can stand on their own, e.g., “I was tired. Alice went to bed” vs. “I was tired and Alice went to bed.”

Here are the words that fall under these categories:

Articles Coordinating conjunctions Prespositions (list not exhaustive)
a, an, the for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so above, across, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, by, down, from, in, into, near, of, off, on, to, toward, under, upon, with, within, etc.

📚For more examples and information on prepositions, head to this page by the University of Ottawa.

Here are a few book titles that do not capitalize articles, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions (unless they are the first or last words of the title):

  • “In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust
  • “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • “The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger
  • “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James
  • “Again, but Better” by Christine Riccio

Subordinating conjunctions

Subordinating conjunctions, on the other hand, are capitalized. These are words that introduce a new part to the sentence that is dependent on the main sentence, or clause. Subordinating conjunctions include: if, since, as, when, although, while, after, before, until, because.

Because titles are not typically multi-clause sentences, it’s harder to intuit which group a conjunction belongs to. The simplest way to know when to capitalize conjunctions is to just remember which are coordinating and which subordinating. 

Subordinating conjunctions do get capitalized, as in these title examples:

  • “Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke” by Eric LaRocca
  • “As Good As Dead” by Holly Jackson
  • “What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions” by Randall Munroe
  • “Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer Is Much Faster): Life Lessons and Other Ravings” by Dave Barry

4. When in doubt, refer to your style guide

If you're writing for a specific institution, keep their style guide bookmarked. For your convenience, here's what the four most commonly used style guides in North America require when it comes to capitalizing titles correctly:

Chicago Manual of Style

Capitalize:

  • The first and last words of a title
  • Verbs, pronouns, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs
  • Subordinating conjunctions

Don’t capitalize:

  • Articles, prepositions of any length, and coordinating conjunctions
  • “To,” if used in an infinitive (e.g., “Failure to Launch”)

Modern Languages Association (MLA) Handbook

Capitalize:

  • The first and last words of a title
  • Verbs, pronouns, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs
  • Subordinating conjunctions

Don’t capitalize:

  • Articles, prepositions of any length, and coordinating conjunctions
  • “To,” if used in an infinitive (e.g., “Failure to Launch”)

American Psychological Association (APA) Publication Manual

Capitalize:

  • The first and last words of a title
  • Verbs, pronouns, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs
  • Words that consist of more than four letters, even conjunctions and prepositions

Don’t capitalize:

  • Words shorter than four letters
  • “To,” if used in an infinitive (e.g., “Failure to Launch”)

The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook

Capitalize:

  • The first and last words of a title
  • Verbs, pronouns, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs
  • Subordinating conjunctions
  • Words that consist of more than four letters, even conjunctions and prepositions
  • “To,” if used in an infinitive (e.g., “Failure To Launch”)

Don’t capitalize:

  • Articles and prepositions shorter than four letters
  • Coordinating conjunctions

You’ll notice that the first two, Chicago and MLA, are the same — whereas AP and APA share an enthusiasm for capitalizing words longer than four letters.

Now compare these book titles:

AP and APA Chicago and MLA
  • “All Along You Were Blooming: Thoughts for Boundless Living” by Morgan Harper Nichols
  • “All along You Were Blooming: Thoughts for Boundless Living” by Morgan Harper Nichols

See the difference? 

  • Chicago and MLA don’t capitalize “along” because it’s a preposition. 
  • AP and APA do capitalize it because it’s longer than four letters long. 
  • “For” is a coordinating conjunction (so lowercase for Chicago and MLA) and not long enough to be capitalized in AP and APA.
  • All four style guides capitalize the first and last words of the title, as well as the first word of the subtitle.
Annotated example of the title discussed above
AP/APA style capitalization, where the preposition 'Along' is capitalized because it's longer than four words.

🎯 Want to test yourself? Head over to our book title generator and give it a whirl. Write down what titles you’re given and then ask yourself how they’d be formatted for each style guide. 

Those are all the rules, so you can go ahead and capitalize your title. Beyond your title, if you’ve got a whole manuscript in need of polishing, consider hiring a copy editor to take care of the finer details.

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If you want to expand your knowledge of niche linguistic matters even further, head over to the world of punctuation with our post on using hyphens and dashes correctly. Just don’t forget your linguist geek hat.

🙇

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