A Dead Giveaway in a Headline


People sometimes ask me whether, as an editor and grammar buff, I'm constantly annoyed by errors -- so much so that it sucks all the pleasure out of reading. This usually comes from people who themselves are driven nuts by the many typos they see in print and figure I must have an acute case of the same ailment.

My answer is always: kind of. I am sometimes distracted by errors, but reading for content, which I do in my own time, is very different from proofreading. My mind's in a whole different place, so little typos don't demand too much of my attention.

Headlines are different. When I'm looking at the headline for an article, my brain hasn't yet fully kicked in to reader gear. So that's probably why the most distracting things to me when I read are miscapitalized headlines.

I can sometimes tell right away whether a pro edited an article just by how its headline is capitalized. As you've probably noticed, most places capitalize the first letter of most words in headlines, but not all. Little words like "in," "at," "and," and "the" usually start with lowercase letters even when the other words in the headline start with caps.

People used to seeing this style guess that the criteria for deciding whether to lowercase a first letter of a word in a headline is all about size: Little words can start with lowercase letters. But that's not true.

In the most standard editing styles, "in" starts with a lowercase letter, but "is" doesn't. Neither does "it." The difference? "It" is a pronoun, "is" is a noun, and "in" is a preposition. Pronouns and nouns have important jobs in a sentence. They're the actors and the actions. Prepositions are less consequential. That's why most style guides follow a headline style of lowercasing the first letter of short prepositions, but not of pronouns or nouns: Candidate Says It's in the Bag.

And that's something only pros seem to know.

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