How to Capitalize Headings and Why It Is Confusing

To capitalize headings, check with your style guide first.

To capitalize headings, make sure to check with your style guide first.

Using lowercase and uppercase within the running text of your paper is simple enough. But how should you capitalize headings?

The problem with headings is that different style guides have different requirements. Navigating the myriad rules can be very confusing. So, in this blog post, we will look at some ways in which to capitalize headings.

Two Common Ways to Capitalize Headings

In general, writers and editors use two styles of capitalization: the sentence case and the title case.

Sentence Case: The sentence case is easy enough. You treat the heading as you would treat a sentence. You capitalize the first letter.

Title Case: You capitalize the first and the last words in the heading. But you also capitalize the first letters of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions.

Conjunctions, coordinating prepositions, and articles typically remain in the lowercase. But these little parts of speech often create the most confusion with regard to capitalization.

Why the Confusion

Let us look the titles of some well-known books here.

Example 1:

Sentence case: ‘A portrait of the artist as a young man’
Title case: ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’

Explanation: Here the first letter (‘A’), the nouns (‘portrait’, ‘artist’, ‘man’), and the adjective (‘young’) are capitalized.

Example 2:

Sentence case: ‘20,000 leagues under the sea’
Title case: ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea’

Explanation: It is clear that the nouns (‘leagues’, ‘sea’) have to be capitalized. But some style guides might differ on what to do with the preposition (‘under’). The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) says that regardless of the length of the preposition, its first letter should take the lowercase (here’s how CMOS would tackle the preposition ‘through’). But some other style guides state that prepositions and conjunctions of four letters or more should be capitalized. Some guides choose five letters as the capitalization threshold.

Example 3:

Sentence case:  ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: an inquiry into values’
Title case: ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values’

Explanation: Besides the points discussed in the previous examples, there is added complexity here: the colon. The American Psychological Association (APA) style manual demands that you capitalize the first word after a colon. But some other style guides might prefer the lowercase after a colon.

What You Should Do

The first step is to follow your style guide carefully. If you have no specified style guide, figure out a capitalization style that works for you. There is just one golden rule: Remember to use it consistently.

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