How to Write Titles*

This may not be true in the rest of the country, but here in the L.A. area people are really concerned with how to write titles. Not titles like Mr. or Dr. or Adm. But titles like “Star Wars” and “X Men” and occasionally even “Slaughterhouse Five.” The question has come up almost every time I’ve ever taught a grammar seminar, and everyone in the class scoots forward in their chairs to learn the mystery of how to write titles.

And they always seem dissatisfied with the answer: There’s no right way, from a grammar or punctuation standpoint, to write titles. It’s simply a matter of style.

Associated Press style says to put movie and book titles in quotation marks. “Star Wars.” “Slaughterhouse Five.” That makes sense when you consider that AP is a news writing style and early printing presses could not make italics.

“The Chicago Manual of Style,” which is followed by book publishers and many magazines, too, says to use italics for book and movie titles. Star Wars. Slaughterhouse Five. I’m not sure what the reason is. But it could simply be that it looks better. Those quotation marks in AP style definitely interrupt the visual flow of a sentence.

Neither style says to underline titles, which throws off a lot of writers who distinctly remember doing so in school. But that convention of some academic styles isn’t really followed in professional publishing.

As for those ALL-CAPITAL TITLES THAT SEEM TO SCREAM AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS, those are common in marketing writing – you know, the kind of writing that’s actually trying to push something on readers. But you won’t find titles written that way in newspapers or books. In fact, even proper names that are supposed to be in all caps, like the entertainment complex L.A. LIVE, don’t stay all caps in many newspapers. They become L.A. Live.

Both AP and Chicago have special rules for song titles, magazine titles, composition titles, poem titles, and just about anything else that a writer has given a name to. There are too many to commit to memory. If you absolutely need to get them right, consult a style guide. Otherwise, don’t sweat these too much. It’s probably fine to just choose one style – quotation marks or italics – for all. No one will think less of you for not knowing every little rule. After all, even editors often have to double-check.

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