Capitalization of Words in Titles and Headings: Rules from the AP Stylebook

I recently conducted a workshop for employees in the development office at my university, and since they use Associated Press (AP) style, I was asked to include a unit on avoiding common AP errors.

I bought the latest copy of The Associated Press Stylebook to brush up on my knowledge. While some of the AP rules are quirky (I especially dislike the rule to leave out the last comma in a series—and I don’t like spelling “advisor” with an “e,” either), reviewing the book gave me the idea to do a better job of discussing capitalization in titles and headings when I teach bcomm. I mark erroneous and inconsistent capitalizing a lot on student papers and slides. Perhaps it’s time I gave my students a little lesson on the matter (and then a quiz!).

Grammar handbooks vary a bit on their capitalization rules, but the ones in the AP Stylebook provide a good foundation:

–Capitalize all “principal words” in titles, which include “prepositions and conjunctions of four or more letters.”

–Capitalize the articles—a, an, and the—or words of fewer than four letters if they’re the first or last word in a title (and I would add “or subtitle”).

These rules are easy to remember and will cover most situations.  If you find them somewhat vague, you can turn to the MLA Handbook for more specifics (The Chicago Manual of Style cites the same rules):

–Capitalize all nouns, pronouns (yes, including it and that), verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (e.g., before, if).

–If they fall in the middle of a title/heading, don’t capitalize the articles, the coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet), the to infinitive (e.g., How to Play Chess), or prepositions. On this final point, MLA departs from AP by advising using lower case for all prepositions, even long ones (e.g., between, against). I prefer the AP rule to capitalize prepositions of four or more letters. You’ll have to decide here what you prefer.

So the “little words/big words” distinction really doesn’t help very much. Students need to identify what kind of word each one is and then follow the rule.

Here are some titles and headings you can use for practice and discussion:

–results of our research

–arguments in favor of using personality testing

–writing résumés that get results

–reasons to adopt new hiring practices

–doing well while doing good: a guide for corporate giving

–software or a cloud-based application? a comparative study

— an analysis of employees’ cell-phone use

–best advice for writing thank-you messages

 “Hey,” you might be saying; “you didn’t list the rule for hyphenated words!” You’re right—and the AP Stylebook is silent on this topic. So is the MLA Handbook. But according to the Online Writing Lab at NC State University, the Chicago Manual is pretty explicit. Read what the NCSU experts say and see what you think. (Personally, I disagree that when the modifier hands-on appears in a title, on should not be capitalized.)

As with so many correctness issues, this one gets more complicated the more you look at it. It’s clear, though, that our students need help with capitalization. If you have preferred guidelines and strategies, please share them.

3 thoughts on “Capitalization of Words in Titles and Headings: Rules from the AP Stylebook

  1. Pingback: Capitalising Headings (Title Case or Sentence Case?)

  2. It’s striking to me that AP has so drastically changed its tune over such a short period of time.

    I posed the question to the editor of AP Stylebook and got this response:

    Q. I’ve been told that prepositions of more than 3 letters, e.g., “about,” when used in headlines should be capitalized. Is that correct? – from Harrisburg, Pa. on Fri, Mar 21, 2014

    A. In AP headlines, only the first word, proper nouns and adjectives and certain abbreviations — e.g., US, FBI, NATO — are capitalized. Other publications may have their own guidance on capping headlines.


    • Keep in mind that the author of the blog post is referencing AP guidelines for titles, and AP responded with their guideline for headlines. Title and headlines are not the same thing.


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