Capitalization of a title, or headline, can be quite complicated. If you’re not confined to a particular style guide (e.g. Chicago, AP, etc.), you can pretty much do it however you want – within certain limits. Clarity is your top priority here, and because the title is the first thing people will see when reading your piece, you want it to make them interested and convey the impression that you know what you are talking about. It should give your readers a preview of what’s to come. So it follows that if there are typos, glaring mistakes or problems with your title, readers are going to assume that the rest of the piece will be poorly written as well.
In order to have a good title, you should follow certain guidelines – and while there are a few different guidelines to choose from, you should adhere to some basic rules no matter what. Here are some of the most common title styles:
Chicago – The Chicago Manual of Style’s guidelines for writing a title are: capitalize the first and last words of the title, and all nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, subordinating conjunctions, and some conjunctions. Only capitalize a preposition if it is used adjectivally or adverbially.
Associated Press – The AP Style Manual says that you should capitalize the first word of the title/heading and of any subtitle/subheading; capitalize all “major” words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns) in the title/heading, including the second part of hyphenated major words (e.g., Self-Report not Self–report); and capitalize all words of four letters or more.
Sentence Style – This style only capitalizes the first word, proper nouns and names. It’s called “sentence style” because the capitalization is the same as it would be in a regular sentence.
Capitalize The First Letter Of Every Word – This style doesn’t have an official name that I know of. It’s probably the easiest to use, since there’s never a question of what should be capitalized. Just Capitalize Everything.
don’t capitalize anything – This one is weird too. I’ve seen a lot of online writers/bloggers do this. I’ve also seen people write an entire blog post in lower case. Technically, it’s not a “correct” way of doing things, but what makes one thing right and another wrong? Read this post for more about my perspective on grammar.
If you choose either Chicago or AP style, the only words you shouldn’t capitalize are articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (and, or, but) and prepositions (for, in, at, by, to). The biggest difference between the two is that when using AP style, you will capitalize these words if they have more than four letters (with, although, than, that, before, after, etc.)
What it comes down to is that you have to follow the rules of whoever is publishing your writing/whoever you work for/whoever your target audience is. And to further complicate things, every publisher has a “house style” which usually follows something like the Chicago Manual of Style pretty closely, but invariably has its own quirks as well. The publisher I worked for never used the Oxford Comma, for example.
For my blog titles I use AP style, capitalizing most words with more than four letters. But I’m free to use whatever style I want because this is a blog!
Further reading: APA Style; Quick and Dirty Tips
Here is a site that automatically capitalizes your title for you, using either Chicago or AP style: titlecapitalization.com