What to capitalize in a headline

Copy editors notice a lot of little stuff that other people might not. The online news sites 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 title 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 the first “to” lowercase and capitalize the last one:

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 though in AP you’d write Many Shoppers Wait Until Last Minute, in Chicago style that could be Many Shoppers Wait until Last Minute.

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