*What to Capitalize in a Headline

Copy editors notice a lot of little stuff that other people might not. The online news sites and articles that continue to nudge out traditional news outlets often contain tiny hints that they’re being produced by people who aren’t as well versed in language and style as older forms of media.

One of the most common examples has to do with headline capitalization. A lot of online writing uses sentence case for headlines, with the first letter of most words capitalized.

Fed Chair Will Keep Interest Rates Low

Often, it works out just fine, as in the headline above. But some situations seem to stump less experienced editors and designers

Fed Chair To Keep Interest Rates Low

See that “to”? Well, traditional news style calls for that to be lowercase.

Fed Chair to Keep Interest Rates Low

A lot of inexperienced editors don’t realize that, so they just “initial cap” every word. But more of them, it seems, know that some words in headlines are supposed to be lowercase. And they know those tend to be short words. So many guess correctly that the t in “to” is lowercase, yet they still make other mistakes.

How to Know When it is Time to Make a Will

The capitalization in that last headline doesn’t conform with editing style.

Knowing Which Loved One to Make Your Will Out to

Neither does that one.

These two examples illustrate why it’s often a good idea to know and follow capitalization style for headlines: It just looks more professional, even to readers who aren’t consciously focusing on capitalization.

So here’s a simple system offered by AP that you should consider for any headlines you write:

Capitalize the first word of every letter except articles, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions of three letters or fewer. There’s one exception: Any word that is the first word in the headline or the last word should be capitalized, regardless of its part of speech. So that last headline, in AP style, would leave one “to” lowercase and capitalize the other:

Knowing Which Loved One to Make Your Will Out To

The biggest problem writers have with this simple system is remember that is and it, unlike in, are not prepositions. Is is a verb and it is a pronoun. So they’re always uppercased in AP style headlines.

Candidate Asks What It Is

By the way, the Chicago manual uses a similar system, except it doesn’t contain the same three-letter stipulation for prepositions, etc. So while in AP you’d write “Many Shoppers Wait Until Last Minute” in Chicago that could be “Many Shoppers Wait until Last Minute.”

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13 Responses to “*What to Capitalize in a Headline”

  1. "Capitalize the first word of every letter except articles, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions of three letters or fewer."

    I think you meant:

    Capitalize the first letter of every word..."

  2. You're right. That's a pretty mistake funny.

  3. Huffington Post capitalizes every letter in headlines, including conjunctions and prepositions, no matter how teeny or unimportant, and it irks me every time I see it. So I guess I'll see you at the next Out-of-Touch Cranks' Club meeting.

  4. It seems The HuffingtonPost is inconsistent:

    "Casey Kasem and the Death of American Mass Culture"

    "Steve Martin Debunks 'Father Of The Bride' Rumor"

    "George R.R. Martin Explains The Shocking Finale Scene"

    "New TV Show About The Beatles Reportedly In The Works"

  5. Oh, dear. That's not good. Picking an odd style and sticking with it is one thing. But inconsistency like that suggests no one's bothered to set and/or enforce standards ...

  6. Do you have a citation or source for this AP rule? I'm not seeing it in the AP Stylebook. Thanks:

    "Capitalize the first word of every letter except articles, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions of three letters or fewer."

  7. Jim: That was my summary of how I see it done and some in-house policies I've known about. I don't see it cited in the AP guide, either.

  8. Wrong. Cap as if a sentence--only the first word and proper nouns.

    Look at any newspaper except those with their own style book, as the NYT, for example. AP style should apply to online news as well. For example, the Boston Globe online edition: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/05/03/tufts-students-begin-hunger-strike-support-university-janitors-targeted-for-layoffs/O30YeVmPxq6cJz8PPOmkVL/story.html?rss_id=Top-GNP&google_editors_picks=true

    Book publishers use Chicago.

  9. Thanks for the help!

  10. Fed Chair To Keep Interest Rates Low

    Some styles would find this hed perfect because "to" is part of an infinitive and therefore should be capitalized as well.

  11. Um, this is incorrect, too: "A lot of online writing uses sentence case for headlines, with the first letter of most words capitalized."

    Sorry, but that's not what sentence case is. I'm afraid there are too many things that are incorrect in this piece for one to take it as an authoritative source.

  12. Anne: You're right. I meant "title case." Brain freeze.