Capitalizing Titles of Works

Some people prefer to capitalize each word of a title. But, if you need to learn the rules of the “up and down” style of titles, here is a guide.

Section 8.157 of The Chicago Manual of Style lays out rules:

  1. Capitalize first and last words
  2. Capitalize nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs
  3. Lowercase articles the, a, and an
  4. Lowercase prepositions (of, in, to, for, with, on, at, over, between, around, etc.)
  5. Lowercase conjunctions and, but, for, or, and nor

Note: These are only the basic rules. However, these are likely the only ones you’ll need.
Preposition list: For a longer list of English prepositions, click here.

Let’s run through some examples. I’ll explain why I capitalized or lowercased each word.

1. Vampires Suck Blood from a Young Woman.

  • I capitalized Vampires and Woman because they are the first and last words. (rule 1)
  • I capitalized Suck because it’s a verb. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Young because it’s an adjective. (rule 2)
  • I lowercased a because it’s an article. (rule 3)
  • I lowercased from because it’s a preposition. (rule 4)

2. The Mating Habits of Mutants

  • I capitalized The and Mutants because they are the first and last words. (rule 1)
  • I capitalized Mating it’s an adjective. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Habits because it’s a noun. (rule 2)
  • I lowercased of because it’s a preposition. (rule 4)

3. The Unicorn Who Forgot His Knife

  • I capitalized The and Knife because they are the first and last words. (rule 1)
  • I capitalized Unicorn because it’s a noun. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Forgot because it’s a verb. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Who and His because they are pronouns. (rule 2)

4. Four Snakes and Rats Played Nicely Together

  • I capitalized Four and Together because they are the first and last words. (rule 1)
  • I capitalized Snakes and Rats because they’re nouns. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Played because it’s a verb. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Nicely because it’s an adverb. (rule 2)
  • I lowercased and because it’s a conjunction. (rule 5)

Test your skills with a quiz. Below you will see titles with every word lowercased. Rewrite each title with the correct words capitalized. The answers are below.

1. young boy caught farting in class
2. crazy cat and the dumb dog
3. swarm of grandmothers brazenly pinch cheeks at noon
4. ten clouds turn pink
5. the curious way the sea monster eats her food in the ocean

Answers: 1. Young Boy Caught Farting in Class 2. Crazy Cat and the Dumb Dog 3. Swarm of Grandmothers Brazenly Pinch Cheeks at Noon 4. Ten Clouds Turn Pink 5. The Curious Way the Sea Monster Eats Her Food in the Ocean

When to italicize foreign words and phrases

Every once in a while, it feels good to add a snooty foreign word or phrase to your writing. I mean, what would the writing world be without a little je ne sais quoi? However, there are rules about how to treat these words and phrases on first reference, and that’s what today’s post is about. (After all, teaching language and style rules is Grammar Party’s modus operandi.)

Section 7.49 of the sixteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style states, “Italics are used for isolated words and phrases in a foreign language if they are likely to be unfamiliar to readers. If a foreign word becomes familiar through repeated use throughout a work, it need be italicized only on its first occurrence. If it appears only rarely, however, italics may be retained.”

The question is: How do you know if a foreign word or phrase will be unfamiliar to readers? Chicago has an answer for that, too. According to section 7.52, the test to find out if a word or phrase is likely to be unfamiliar to readers is to see if it is listed in Merriam-Webster.

If the foreign word or phrase is listed in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, don’t italicize it. If it’s not listed, italicize it.

Here’s a starter list of foreign words and phrases that don’t need italics (because they are listed in Merriam-Webster):

addendum entente
ad hoc ex officio
ad infinitum exposé
ad interim fait accompli
à la carte fete
à la mode habeas corpus
ante meridiem habitué
à pied hors d’oeuvre
a priori machismo
apropos maître d’hôtel
artiste mandamus
attaché mélange
avant-garde ménage
beau ideal nom de plume
belles lettres non sequitur
billet-doux papier-mâché
blasé per annum
bloc per capita
bona fide per contra
bourgeois per diem
cabaret précis
café prima facie
camouflage procès-verbal
canapé pro forma
carte blanche pro rata
chargé d’affaires protégé
cliché quasi
communiqué quondam
confrere realpolitik
coup recherché
coup d’état reveille
cul-de-sac résumé
de facto soiree
décolletage status quo
détente subpoena
dilettante têt-à-tête
distrait tour de force
doppelganger vice versa
dramatis personae visa
éclat vis-à-vis
en masse viva voce
en route

I hope you enjoyed our quasi têt-à-têt. Remember, if you’d like more Grammar Party musings throughout your day, you can follow me on twitter at @GrammarParty.

Abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms, oh my!

Lesson: learning the difference between abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms

What is an abbreviation?
An abbreviation is any shortened word or phrase.


What is an acronym?
An acronym is a type of abbreviation. However, to be an acronym, the shortened name or phrase must make a new word that you can pronounce. For instance, NATO is an acronym because you can say nay-to; yet, TGIF is not an acronym because you don’t hear people say ti-jiff. (But, of course, if you want to start that trend, more power to ya.)

Here are more examples of acronyms:
the PATRIOT act

What is an initialism?
An initialism is also a type of abbreviation. With this type, the first letter of each word is taken together to make up the abbreviation. For instance, atm is an initialism because the a is for automatic, the t is for teller, and m is for machine. Thus atm.

Here are more examples of initialisms:

Simply dashing part three: the hyphen

Welcome back for our final installment from the horizontal language department. Previously we discussed the em dash and the en dash. Today we will learn about the shortest in the dash-like family, the hyphen.

Hyphen basics
Hyphens link:

  • a prefix or a suffix to a word; and
  • two or more words together

Hyphens linking prefixes and suffixes
One of the most difficult questions when it comes to this topic is whether to hyphenate. In general, there is a movement away from hyphenation when it comes to prefixes and suffixes.

Think about the words bicycle and misinformed. If we added a hyphen before these prefixes, the words would look like this: bi-cycle and mis-informed. However, due to the trend away from hyphenation, these words now look wrong to us with their hyphens.

Still, there are times when we include hyphens with prefixes and suffixes. Today, one of the hyphen’s main purposes is to help with ease of reading. A general rule is to hyphenate when a lack of a hyphen would cause confusion or when it is not a familiar word without the hyphen.

For example, think of the word recreation. Recreation, without the hyphen, means exercise or play. Re-creation, with the hyphen, means to create something again. The words have two different meanings depending on whether you use a hyphen. The same idea goes with recover and re-cover.

For the second part of the rule, let’s consider my obsession with collecting R2D2 figurines. (Stay with me.) If someone broke into my apartment and stole all of my R2D2 toys, I would be R2D2-less. However, I would not be R2D2less because, well, that word just looks strange. Think also about someone who just quit smoking. They would now be tobacco-free. They wouldn’t be tobaccofree. In both these instances, you need the hyphen because these words are not familiar without them.

Unfortunately, there are few definitive rules when it comes to using hyphens with prefixes and suffixes. However, The Chicago Manual of Style’s chapter seven has a handy list of hyphenated and unhyphenated words.

Hyphens linking two or more words together
This use of hyphens thankfully has more definitive rules.

1. Compound modifiers with nouns: Compound modifiers are two or more words that work together to describe a noun. Think about half-full jar (Half-full is the compound modifier.) and closed-lipped smile (Closed-lipped is the compound modifier.). When these come before a noun, they are usually always hyphenated.

Here are more examples:

red-and-white dress
seven-year-old boy
three-time champion
well-read man
thirty-year reign
second-best option

However, if your modifier includes a word ending in –ly, it does not take a hyphen, such as in these examples:

highly paid executive
amazingly hilarious movie
humorously dull person
finally pursued goal

2. Omission of part of a hyphenated expression: This also has to do with compound modifiers. Let’s start with an example. Say you have a five-year plan (Note the hyphen.) and a ten-year plan. (Five-year and ten-year are the compound modifiers.) If you wanted to write about both of these plans at the same time, you could write my five-year plan and my ten-year plan. Or you could combine the two to write my five- and ten-year plans. Here, we took out the first year, but we still need the hyphen.

Here are more examples:

twenty- and thirty-year payment plans
first- and second-year students
Minneapolis- or St. Paul-bound passengers
fur- and gut-covered man

Final note
As you can tell, the rules (and sometimes the lack thereof) for hyphens are complicated. I have touched on basics here, but there are many exceptions depending on the word. I recommend further investigation if you are researching a specific case. Like I mentioned before, chapter seven of The Chicago Manual of Style breaks down case-by-case scenarios in better detail. You can also try that old trick of checking the dictionary.

Simply dashing part two: the en dash

In part two of this series, we have reached the middle of our longest to shortest dash/hyphen set. The en dash: not quite an em dash, not quite a hyphen, and not quite as useful as either. I’m really selling this blog post, aren’t I?

But it’s actually important to learn the proper use of the en dash because an untrained eye might think an em dash or a hyphen is being used, when it’s actually an en dash. (The en dash is not as long as the em dash and not as short as a hyphen, but the lengths are just close enough that it can be easy to confuse.) And if you don’t use an en dash in its appropriate circumstances, not only will you make a punctuation error, but the entire realm of horizontal punctuation might implode and start eating itself. So, it’s important, okay?

En dash basics
Like the em dash, the en dash received its name from typesetting. This dash is the same length as the letter n, so it is thus called an en dash.

The en dash is used:

  • with number ranges
  • to signify to
  • with compound adjectives

Number ranges
The en dash can be used to replace the phrase up to and including, through, and to in number ranges.

Take a look at these examples:

David Bowie’s golden years were 1972–1979.
I have to read chapters 6–8 for homework.
The gallery will be open 2–11 p.m. Friday.
The Sharks beat the Jets, 14–5.

However, if the sentence has the word from before the first number in the number range, do not use an en dash. Instead, use the word to between the numbers:

From 1987 to 1989, Mark had a mullet haircut.
I will be unavailable from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Likewise, if the word between comes before the first number in the number range, do not use an en dash. Instead, use the word and.

Between October 1 and December 1, I will be on vacation.
You can catch me at my office between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The en dash is also used with unfinished date ranges. Examples of this are birthdates for people who are still alive and the start date for an ongoing publication or program:

David Bowie (1947–) is a famous British rocker.
Rolling Stone (1967–) has covered David Bowie many times through the years.

En dash to signify to
Outside of number ranges, the en dash can also be used to replace the word to:

The Berlin–Munich train leaves at 3 p.m.
Their marriage lasted May–August 2011.

En dashes with compound adjectives
Says The Chicago Manual of Style section 6.80, “The en dash can be used in place of a hyphen in a compound adjective when one of its elements consists of an open compound or when both elements consist of hyphenated compounds.”

Open compounds are compounds of two or more words with spaces in them that express one idea (such as salad dressing and science fiction).

Here are examples of open compounds in a compound adjective that use an en dash:

the country music–influenced band
the pre–World War Three generation

Here are examples of an en dash used when both elements of a compound adjective are hyphenated:

the semi-elegant–semi-successful party
the non-business–non-pleasure category

How to make an en dash
Like with the em dash, Microsoft Word automatically makes an en dash in some situations. For instance, if you are typing a number range and type a space-hyphen-space between the two numbers, Word automatically changes the hyphen to an en dash. However, The Chicago Manual of Style advises not to place spaces around en dashes.

You can always add an en dash by using these steps:

  1. In Microsoft Word, go to the Insert tab.
  2. Click Symbol from the drop down box.
  3. Click Special Characters.
  4. Click En Dash.
  5. Click Insert.

Spaces around en dash?
As I mentioned above, The Chicago Manual of Style advises not to places spaces around en dashes. However, be sure to check for spacing specifics in any house style guide or other style guide that applies to what you are writing.

If you missed part one of the series, you can find it here. And be sure to check back for the final installment to learn how and when to use hyphens.