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What’s the deal with headline capitalization?

capitalize headlines

If you’ve noticed a whole lot of variation in capitalization patterns for headlines and article titles lately, you’re not imagining things. Whereas there used to be a couple of standard styles that most publications adhered to, today’s wide variability can leave a person wondering if there’s even a right way and a wrong way to approach the issue any more.

Never fear, rules still exist. It’s just that they’re evolving, as do all language-related matters. (There’s also the fact that with so many internet-based publications and individuals putting out content, you see a lot more mistakes and deviations from the rules.) If you’d like to follow the rules in your own headlines, here’s a quick outline of current standards for each of the major style guides.

AP and APA

Associated Press style (and American Psychological Association, which follows it closely) calls for capitalizing only the first word of the headline, unless it includes proper nouns that would be normally be capitalized within a sentence. Other key rules affect:

  • Quotes – quoted words or phrases are indicated by single quotation marks
  • Numbers – numerals replace the written names of all numbers
  • Periods – eliminate the periods for U.S., U.K., U.N., D.C., and states that are abbreviated with two capital initials (e.g. NC, SD, WV). If you’re abbreviating a state name another way (Conn., Ark.), do include the period after the abbreviated name.

CMS and MLA

Chicago Manual of Style and Modern Language Association rules for headlines are a bit different (for English). These are what many people think of as traditional headline and title formats, with all words except prepositions, articles and conjunctions capitalized. If your headline begins or ends with one of the words usually not capitalized, you should still give them a capital or reword the headline so that it begins and ends with a capitalized part of speech.

That’s painting the subject in very broad strokes, as CMS rules do call for capitalizing prepositions when they are used as an adjective or adverb, and many who follow this style choose to capitalize prepositions that have four (or five) letters or more.

Beware: If you’re following the Chicago style you should pay particular attention to the word ‘is’ in your headlines. It often appears in lowercase, simply because at only two letters it’s assumed not to merit capitalization. That’s a mistake, because although short, the word is a verb and should be given an initial capital.

Another option

Some online publications prefer to capitalize each word in a headline, including prepositions and articles (e.g. the, and, to, at). The AP even provides this as a service for online subscribers. When readers select the option, AP converts all headlines to show every word in the title with an initial capital letter.

The takeaway

You can feel free to use any style of headline capitalization that makes you happy. It’s practically a situation where anything goes, as a quick look at the internet will confirm, and you certainly won’t find any judgment in my quarter. Having selected your preferred style, however, do try to be consistent across your site and diligently follow the rules of your chosen method. If you switch from one style to another, there’s no need to go back and retroactively change your earlier titles. Just stick with it once you’ve made the move, and consider the shift an obvious sign of your firm’s progress and forward-looking approach.

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Sarah Warlick

Sarah Warlick founded Proof Positive Content to provide professional service firms with high-quality content that resonates with their individual audiences. Sarah's writing appears in books, on dozens of firm websites and in Accounting Today, Social Media Today, various professional journals and other leading publications, but usually under another name. Ghostwriters rarely get the glory - their clients do!

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