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

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.

Simply Dashing Part One: The Em Dash

Welcome to part one of a three-part series about horizontal fun in the punctuation department: the em dash, the en dash, and the hyphen. Through this series, you’ll learn the difference between these marks and when to use which one.

Let’s take these marks from longest to shortest. That means we are going to discuss the em dash first.

Em dash basics
The em dash received its name from typesetting. It is the width of a letter m, hence the name em dash.

The em dash is used to show :

  • emphasis
  • interruption
  • sudden breaks in thought
  • lists
  • quote attribution


When used to show emphasis, interruption, sudden breaks in thought, and lists, em dashes may replace commas, semicolons, or colons. Because dashes are meant to be used sparingly, they have a greater impact than commas, semicolons, and colons—and they can really pump up the volume on your sentence.

Em dash used for emphasis
Think about when you’re telling a story or a lecture or explaining rules to someone, and you have come to the place where you want to make a main point. You pause, right? You pause to alert the listener that something important is coming. When translated to text, this is where you would use an em dash for emphasis. The main point is one example of when you would want to use emphasis. You could also use emphasis to show danger or excitement and for gobs of other reasons.

Here are some examples:

Class, there is a squiggly line on the board—this is very important—don’t ever divide the horseshoe by the squiggly line.

Don’t ever divide the horseshoe by the squiggly line—especially you in the back row.

One time I divided the horseshoe by the squiggly line—and the building blew up.

Em dash used for interruption
If you read fiction, you’ll probably recognize this use of the em dash from dialogue. It looks something like this:

“I want you to know that I—,” Sarah began to say.

Or this:

“I want you to know that I—”

“What?” Cal interrupted. “You love me?”

Em dash used for sudden breaks in thought
If you’re like me, then you usually have a hundred thoughts going through your head at any given moment. (Unless you’re eating cookies. Then you just concentrate on how delicious those cookies are.) The em dash is also used to illustrate when another thought jumps into a sentence.

Here are some examples:

Those cookies—oh boy, were they delicious—came from Marsha’s bakery.

Those cookies—the ones with the raisins in them—were a gift from Sam.

Sam—he’s such a good guy—buys me cookies every Tuesday.

Em dash used for lists
The em dash does a good job of setting off lists when using commas or a mix of commas and semicolons would make your sentence look too clunky.

Here are some examples:

Three people—Sam, Sarah, and Cal—went to math class together.

They learned that some mathematical characters—the horseshoe and the squiggly line—can be dangerous.

After math class, they did two things—studied for their test and ate cookies.

Em dash used for quote attribution
When listing the author of a quote, you’ll sometimes see an em dash before the author’s name, like this:

Live long and prosper.

If I were human, I believe the correct response would be “Go to hell.”

How to make an em dash
In most cases, Microsoft Word automatically makes an em dash for you when you type two hyphens. Simply type the first word, then (without hitting the space bar) type two hyphens, and then (without hitting the space bar) type the second word. When you finally hit the space bar after typing the second word, the two hyphens turn into an em dash.

However, there are circumstances, such as when using the em dash for quote attribution, when this won’t work. In these cases, use the steps below.

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

Spaces around em dash?
The answer about whether to put spaces around em dashes depends on which style guide you use. The Chicago Manual of Style says not to put spaces. But, the Associated Press Stylebook says to put spaces.

If you are writing something that requires the authority of a particular style guide, then check that guide for the answer. If you are writing something for work, inquire whether your company has a house style guide, and check there first to see if it has a ruling on the spaces issue.

Be sure to check back for parts two and three of this series to learn how to use en dashes and hyphens. As always, you can also follow me on Twitter at @GrammarParty.

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