Capitalization Rules for Titles and Chapters

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Do you ever struggle to decide if a word needs to be capitalized or not? You’re not alone. So let’s lay out the things you need to know regarding capitalization rules.

Capitalization rules for titles and chapters

As most writers move along their merry ways in writing flow, creation, and expression, it’s not long before an imagined record needle emits a firm, deliberate, screeching halt across the vinyl record in our brains and a question emerges about whether the word we’ve written needs to be capitalized.

At first, we may take a moment to travel back into the deep recesses of our brains and try to recall a rule or pithy saying one of our teachers might have sermonized somewhere along the way. When that doesn’t work, annoyance sets in over being unable to remember. Or, wonder creeps in, if any of the rules related to capital letters had ever been taught at all?

One thing’s for sure: Capital Letters Make An Impression. Sometimes people feel emboldened TO MAKE EVERYTHING THEY WRITE IN CAPITALS. AS A READER, IT FEELS LIKE SOMEONE IS YELLING. In other instances, they may Randomly capitalize letters that don’t belong in capitals at all, (e.g., “Border,” “Country,” etc.).

Truthfully, I don’t consider myself a grammar authoritarian, there are too many rules to apply or not apply. I find myself questioning some of the rules about capitalizing. However, as a reader, when there are capital letters that are used out of place, I pause and wonder about the quality of a writer’s skill.

When do you need to capitalize?

There are some fundamental instances when capitalizing is definitive. Let’s start with a person’s name. Most know that first and last names are capitalized. What gets confusing are nicknames, (Babe Ruth, The Dude), suffixes, (like Hank Williams, Jr.), and names that are embedded in historical or cultural references, such as Joan of Arc or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Places — including cities, states, countries, and destinations — are sometimes in question when it comes to applying capital letters. Here are a few examples in sentences:

“I can’t wait to visit the Grand Canyon!”
“New York City is alive with action.”
“Colorado Springs has amazing food.”
“Clark County is the place for me.”

In the above instances, even though “city” and “springs” aren’t words that would be capitalized on their own, they are part of a name that belongs to a place, so they are. However, if the word “city” or “state” precedes the name of the place, it would not be capitalized, such as “city of Lawrence” or “state of New York.”

Specific regions are capitalized, but compass directions are not. “She is from the Southwest” or “The Northwest gets a lot of rainy weather.” In contrast, “We left California and flew east” or “The west has some strong winds.”

Another place of capitalization confusion might arrive is when it comes to days, months, or holidays. These are considered proper nouns (name of a particular person, place, organization, or thing) and, as such, require capital letters. For instance, “My birthday falls on the first Sunday in May,” or, “Christmas will be on a Tuesday in December this year.”

How do you properly capitalize a book title?

If ever the grammar lords wanted to create confusion, book titles — and title case in general — would be the place. Most reliable sources share that there are a few primary grammar rules to consider when it comes to proper capitalization in book titles.

Number one, capitalize the first and last words of a title: The Old Man and the Sea or, The Silence of the Lambs. Number two, first words in a title or subtitle are capitalized: The Priority of the Orange Tree or A Fest for Crows. Number three, minor words in a title that are three letters or fewer should be lowercase. Note the above examples: The Old Man and the Sea and The Silence of the Lambs. These words might include, “as,” “and,” “for,” “of,” or “if.”

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How do you capitalize chapter titles?

Generally, rules apply for chapter titles as they do for book titles. Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs are capitalized in titles. A helpful tip (and somewhat confusing) is to always capitalize verbs. These include the verb “to be” and the related forms of “is,” “are,” “am,” “was,” and “were,” even though these are words that have two or four letters. For example, “I Am the Walrus” and Their Eyes Were Watching God.

What words do not need capitalization?

Short prepositions do not need to be capitalized. Although many of the styles have different sets of rules about the length of a preposition, those that are three to four letters or fewer do not get capitalized unless they are the first or last word in a title: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, and The Power of Now.

Articles, such as “the,” “a,” and “an” do not get a capital letter. They are there as supporting stars, if you will. The Diary of a Mad Housewife and To Kill a Mockingbird show how these articles are placed within the capitalization framework.

Other useful capitalization rules to remember

To culminate some of the ideas shared related to capitalization confusion, here are are few more general rules to consider. Categories not capitalized, unless the word is a proper noun or proper adjective, include:

  • animals (black bear versus Bengal tiger)
  • foods (tuna casserole versus Russian dressing)
  • medical conditions (tuberculosis versus Lou Gehrig’s disease)
  • fruits and vegetables (oranges versus Golden Delicious apples)
  • plants (fern versus Douglas fir)
  • seasons (the winter season versus Summer Olympics)

Capitalizing family titles can be another confusing topic. Family titles such as dad or aunt might be used as either common or proper nouns. If you use them as casual common nouns, such as “I wonder what my mom would think,” that’s different than if you use the title as a proper name, like, “Are you okay, Mom?”

A way to connect these capitalization dots is to consider whether we’re speaking about a family member as a reference to who they are in relation to us (“she was my aunt” or “he is my uncle”) as opposed to the title they hold or are called (“hi Aunt Rita” or “see ya Uncle Joe”).

Capitalize on your work

When it comes to making the right choice around capitals, and you’re not sure, choose a style guide and stick to it. Hopefully, there are at least some introductory elements to follow that will help as you write, so at the very least, when you come across a season or family title, you won’t have to hear the record scratch across your brain. You’ll Know Exactly What to Do.

Of course, when your manuscript is complete, hiring a copy editor to do a thorough check of your writing is a great idea. And once your manuscript is edited, turn to BookBaby’s Complete Self-Publishing Packages to bring your work to life and ensure distribution to retailers worldwide.

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