Tuesday, June 18, 2013

To Cap or Not to Cap: That Is the Question

Photo by Chumsdock, Flickr.com
Ah, dearies, it’s so good to see you again. I must be on my way shortly to meet the girls for tea, but I do want to tell you about an experience I had over the weekend. Your Style Maven’s still shaking her head over this one.

Let’s begin at the beginning. I stopped at a bookstore to pick up a new novel by one of my favorite authors. I’ve wanted to read it ever since it came out, and it was my great fortune to acquire the last copy on the shelf. While on my way to pay for it, I stopped to peek at an enticingly-colored flyer on the bulletin board, announcing the upcoming release of a new novel by another favorite writer.

I gasped. My heart fluttered. I blinked and looked again to be sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me—they do that sometimes, you know. This time they saw what they saw. Above the image of the positively captivating cover, the words in the title jumped out at me, all seven of them. Now seven is a perfectly nice number, but only the title’s first word was capitalized. The other six were apparently considered too insignificant by the person who prepared the flyer to begin with a capital letter. While this sentence-style capitalization is often used in reference lists and library catalogs, I seemed to recall that book titles in most written formats should follow the rules of headline-style capitalization.

My mind began to churn. I headed for the shelf where my trusty grammar guide, the Chicago Manual of Style, sat a bit forward of the other books, as though anticipating my imminent arrival. I reached for it, hurried to a nearby table, and opened the index in the back. My practiced finger ran down the possibilities in each column, scurried to the chosen reference, and moved slowly past each line as my eyes perused the rules. Yes, yes, it was just as I remembered: all nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and some conjunctions in a book title should be capitalized.


I read the rule again. Now, mind you, my reading ability is totally intact. I just wanted to be sure that nothing had changed, but it had—more on that in a moment. Now don’t get in a dither; much is the same. You know that prepositions, unless they function as adjectives or adverbs, should normally be lower case. However, if they begin or end the title, it is appropriate to capitalize them (ex.: Of Mice and Men). Check the CMOS for other exceptions. Remember that to is lower case, also, when it appears as part of an infinitive. Similarly, as should always be lower case unless it begins the title (ex., As You Like It); so should conjunctions and, but, or, for, and nor. The list could go on, but I do want to get to that change before I must leave. If I’m even a minute late, those ever-so-punctual girls will make sure I never hear the end of it.

In the past, the recommendation has been that the second element of a hyphenated word or number be lower case. Now, however, CMOS acknowledges the functional equality of the second element and therefore notes that it, too, should be capitalized. (Think “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.")

Oh, my goodness, look at the time! If I don’t dash away this moment, I will surely be late. Ta-ta, dearies. I’ll see you again soon. Do check Chicago’s sixteenth edition if you have the slightest doubt about this change or the proper use of headline-style capitalization.

Photo courtesy of Darrick Bartholomew

When time and schedule permit, the Style Maven relaxes on her porch with a mid-morning cup of tea and her favorite book, the Chicago Manual of Style. Other times, her alter ego busies herself knitting doggie vests and sundry other pretties. Do stop by and say hello to her at The Procraftinator.

21 comments :

  1. I have to admit I went through a phase of writing headlines with only the first letter of the first word capitalised, thinking it looked modern and edgy. But it doesn't, really. Now I prefer initial caps, which is far more professional.

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  2. Thank you. I'm glad the cap rule is as I remembered. Such errors are common on the street, but you don't expect to see them in bookstores.

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  3. On another note, is it now stylish for photographers to chop off the head of the person in the photo? Yours is missing.

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  4. Newer and edgier is not always better, as you noted, Elle. The crisp, professional look of headline-style capitalization highlights the grammatical wisdom of the CMOS. Well said, dearie.

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  5. We would hope that bookstores — perhaps one of the few remaining vestiges of conservative grammar rules — would focus on clarity rather than confusion. Sometimes innovation goes a bit too far, doesn't it? [sigh]

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  6. e. e. cummings must drive you to tears. :)

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  7. If I could even find what I'm looking for in CMOS (or should it be CMoS?)Or just CMS, which I've also seen...
    never mind. I've yet to be able to interpret what most articles mean. In fact, years ago, when I saw a copy on my boss's bookshelf (we worked at a zoo), I though it referred to clothes.

    I'm in violation of this rule a lot--on my book's cover for What's in a Name?, it's all caps, although the 'in a' are in a smaller font. And sometimes, when I'm referring to the book, I do use initial caps on all the words.

    I won't discuss dealing with the fact that the book title ends in a question mark, which creates another set of problems for me.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  8. Nice going, Ms Maven ... I Done Been Schooled.

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  9. A new trend in newspapers seems to be to not capitalize the words in a headline. Drives me nuts when I am doing press releases as I worked with the press eons ago when headlines were all caps. LOL

    So nice you could stop by again Style Maven. Hope you made your appointment in time.

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  10. My photo does remind one of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow, doesn't it? I'll have to think about that. Perhaps the saving grace is that the focus is not me — it's the CMOS, and it's all there. Not to imply that I'm not all there, of course.

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  11. I'm compelled to say that e. e. Cummings must have something else going for him because he's stood the test of time. However, I don't often read him now. High school was another matter. He was my literature teacher's favorite poet, but that's a story for another day.

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  12. Like many other things — beets, sushi, eggplant — the CMOS is a taste that one must learn to savor. It can be very confusing at first, and the layout with the index in the back that sends the looker to a numbered reference is reminiscent of Roget's Thesaurus back in the day. Unfortunately, those references are typically many in number, and a simple search can turn into a major project. However, the end result is worth the effort, and it really does become easier after a while, dearie.

    By the way, examples in the Manual indicate question marks at the end of titles are quite acceptable. And if you are including your title in a sentence that continues after it, it is perfectly proper to follow that question mark with a comma if a comma would be called for in that structure. I've struggled with this issue myself and was incredibly pleased to learn that I don't have to think up creative ways to write something that should be so simple — but has in the past been awkward and complicated. Do forgive me for running so; I get really excited when I find a helpful new rule I didn't know before.

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  13. From time to time, I stumble through the CMOS. More often than not, I actually find what I'm looking for. It's a great tool for both writing and editing, but it isn't for the faint of heart. There's a definite learning curve. Still, it's easier for me to grasp its idiosyncrasies than to master the multitude of computer skills I'm lacking.

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  14. Ms. Maven appreciates your humor, Christopher. Life is indeed a classroom. [smile]

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  15. Changes should be for the better, but I cannot fathom how the journalistic powers that be justified the current lack of capitalization in newspaper headlines. That hardly qualifies as improvement, does it, dearie.

    I did make my appointment, thank you, but just barely.

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  16. I'm so glad to see another supporter of the Manual. Its learning curve is off-putting for many people. By the way, do you get the online updates for it from the University of Chicago Press?

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  17. Things change over the years and decades. For some, that's Hooray. For others, it's Alas. For most of us, it just takes time to adapt.

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  18. Big Red wonders what we should do about anonymous postings. Chop them off?

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  19. That might be beyond the purview of the Style Maven, Dani. We may need Dear Abby for that one!

    Style Maven, you've done it again. Thank you for simplifying things. As I read your post the title came to mind, "A River Runs Through It," which seems to exemplify both rule and exception. No wonder we get confused!

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  20. Much as we might bemoan the fact, dearies, the evolution of language seems inevitable; adaptation is more often a requirement than an option. The difficulty, methinks, occurs when changing grammar rules contribute to confusion rather than clarity — which often happens when those regarding punctuation and capitalization change. I think they call this progress.

    I could really use a cup of tea right now, so I'm going to put the kettle on. Ta ta.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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