Image of upper & lower cases

Don’t bother with all those title case exceptions

Image of upper & lower cases with letters producing title case, sentence case

Early printing shops stored letters in wooden cases. The upper case contained capital, or majuscule letters; the lower case, smaller, or minuscule letters. Hence uppercase & lowercase letters, as well as a variety of combinations resulting in title case, sentence case, start case and others.


This headline was taken verbatim from a respected journalistic authority. Which style is correct?

#1
For First Time, Millennials And Gen-X Were A Majority Of Electorate In 2016

#2
For first time, millennials and gen-x were a majority of electorate in 2016

#3
For First Time, Millennials and Gen-X Were a Majority of Electorate in 2016


The case of the competing cases

Sentence case

If you chose #2, you prefer sentence case in your titles. Only the 1st word and proper nouns begin with capital letters. (Whether gen-x is a proper noun is controversial among the style guides.) You’re in good company. The Washington Post and many other publications use sentence case for their headlines.

Title case

If you chose #3, you prefer traditional title case. The 1st letter of each word is capitalized but with some exceptions: articles (a, and, the); conjunctions (and, but, for); all prepositions (Chicago Manual of Style), those of more than 3 letters (APA Style) or more than 4 letters (various house style manuals); and sometimes any form of the verb to be. Again, you’re in good company. The New York Times generally uses title case in headlines.

Start case

If you chose #1, you prefer start case. (I prefer calling it capitalize case—you’ll see why below—but we’ll go with the style’s traditional name.) Start case begins every word with a capital letter. No exceptions for articles, conjunctions or prepositions of any size. Start case bucks centuries of print tradition—and is the wise choice for digital style.

Many digital publications are opting for this simplified title case in headlines and subheads. No less an authority than National Public Radio, for example (here’s a permalink to the article on generations in the 2016 election).

Why? Why would NPR, Forbes, Huffington Post and a growing number of digital publications overrule centuries of English-language tradition and adopt a title/headline style that, at 1st glance, looks so arresting?

The tools make the rules

As we learn from the Elements Of History series of posts, an era’s style rules arise from the capabilities and limitations of the tools used to create and to consume that era’s documents. The digital era is no different.

Today’s tools of digital production comprise very sophisticated database-driven content-management systems (WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, DNN and more) built on elaborate CSS frameworks, such as Bootstrap or Foundation. These frameworks govern how a browser displays content entered into fields and rendered as HTML elements and JavaScript behaviors.

That’s a mouthful, but it means this for the editors at npr.org (and any content-rich website): If all your story headlines are rendered as h1 tags within a container class storytitle, you can apply the style text‑transform: capitalize; to all those tags once—yes, I said once—in your CMS’s stylesheet. It’s as simple as:

.storytitle h1 {
text-transform: capitalize;
}

All of your article headlines then display in start case (1st letter of every word capitalized, no exceptions) regardless of how they’re typed into the headline field.

What’s up with those title case exceptions anyway?

I’ve been accused of being anti-tradition. I’m not. I like traditions when their rationale is still clear, still relevant and still useful. Traditional title case fails on all those grounds.

There’s no shortage of documents telling us what the exception words are but almost none informing us why they were excepted in the 1st place. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us a clue: “you need a capital letter for all the main words but not for the connecting words such as a, an, the, or, and, etc.”

I find this distinction utterly arbitrary. Who’s to say that a connecting word of few letters is less important to a title’s meaning than a noun or a verb? “I Dig a Pony” and “I Dig the Pony” mean different things. Why should the only words clarifying the difference be given short shrift?

Likewise—perhaps especially—with prepositions. “They Sat by Fire Singing Kumbaya” and “They Sat in Fire Singing Kumbaya” have radically different meanings, distinguished only by tiny prepositions. Traditional title case inaccurately cues the reader that the most important word is the least.

Decisions, decisions

Switch to start case in your digital publications, and what do you lose? Mysterious, arbitrary exceptions whose display will inevitably suffer from either human typing error or those unforeseen circumstances that defeat programmers’ best efforts to ensure with code that articles, conjunctions, and either all prepositions or those of less than 4 or 5 letters will, by God, begin lowercase.

What do you gain? Absolute consistency, total ease and greater accuracy.

No contest.

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