Capitals in headings

We often feel uncertain about how to capitalize words in headings. “Should everything be capitalized?” “Isn’t there a rule about not capitalizing articles and prepositions, and what is a preposition anyway?”

There are some very hard and fast rules about how to capitalize English words in sentences. However, when it comes to capitalizing headings, there are only hard and fast suggestions and expectations, but no rules. In the absence of rules, we at least want to be consistent, so publishing organizations have developed style guides that include recommendations on how to capitalize headings. The five style guidelines that influence most of the publications we read include the American Psychological Association Publication Manual (APA), the Canadian Press Stylebook (CP), the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the Modern Language Association Handbook (MLA), and the Plain Language Commission (PLC) recommendations. The reason we find capitalizing headings confusing is that each one has different recommendations.

To help us figure out what to do, let’s quickly review the recommendations of each of these style guides, and then finish with some advice from common business writing experience.

APA Publication Manual

The APA Publication Manual was originally developed for American Psychological Association authors, but its use has spread to many professional organizations and more recent editions have embraced the needs of a wider range of business and professional writing. The fifth edition, the current edition, makes the following recommendations for capitalizing headings.

  1. Capitalize all major words: all words 4 letters or more, all verbs, linking verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns.
  2. Use lowercase for conjunctions, articles, and short prepositions (3 letters or less).
  3. Capitalize all words four letters or longer.
  4. Capitalize both elements of a hyphenated compound word (i.e., Death-Defying).
  5. Capitalize first word after a colon.

Long-Term Transmission System Performance After the Plan is Implemented

CP Stylebook

The Canadian Press was founded in 1917 and has been providing guidance to Canadian news publishers and broadcasters ever since. It is also widely accepted by Canadian Universities and Colleges. The 15th edition, the current edition, makes the following recommendations for capitalizing headings.

  1. Only the first letter of the first word of the headline is uppercase. All other words in the headline follow normal CP capitalization.

CP capitalization is to capitalize all proper names, trade names, government departments and agencies, name of associations, companies, clubs, religions, languages, nations, races, places, and addresses.

Long-term transmission system performance after the plan is implemented

Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style was first published in 1906 by the University of Chicago Press as a style guide for university publications. It is now in its 15th edition and is widely used by business and academic organizations. The 15th edition makes the following recommendation for capitalizing headings.

  1. Capitalize first and last word.
  2. Capitalize all major words (including some conjunctions).
  3. Use lowercase for articles (the, a, an).
  4. Use lowercase for preposition regardless of length except when they are stressed (i.e., A River Runs Through It).
  5. Use lowercase for conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor).
  6. Use lowercase for to and as.
  7. Capitalize only the first element of a hyphenated word unless any subsequent element is a proper noun (i.e., Death-defying, All-American.)

Long-term Transmission System Performance after the Plan is Implemented

MLA Handbook

The Modern Language Association was founded in 1883 at the John Hopkins University. The 7th edition of their handbook makes the following recommendations for capitalizing headings.

  1. Capitalize all words in titles except prepositions, conjunctions, and articles.
  2. Do not capitalize the second word of a hyphenated compound word (i.e., Pig-headed).

Long-term Transmission System Performance after the Plan is Implemented

Plain Language Commission

The Plain Language Commission was established in the late-1970s from the Plain-English movement that began a few years earlier. They advocate the use of plain language and have been influencing medical, legal, and business communications. The PLC has the following recommendations for capitalizing headings.

  1. Only capitalize the first letter of the first word in a heading unless the word is a proper noun or proper name.

Long-term transmission system performance after the plan is implemented

On a practical note

The easiest strategy for capitalizing headings are the recommendations proposed by the Plain Language Commission and the Canadian Press; namely, to only capitalize the first letter of the first word, and any proper names and proper nouns. These headings are easy to read, and easy for the writer to figure out how to capitalize. However, most organizations believe that headings should have many capital letters and they resist the CP and PLC approach. An acceptable compromise could be to capitalizing the major headings of a publication using the CMS guidelines, and then use the PLC/CP guidelines for all subheadings.

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Last updated: March 2, 2009
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