Style Tips for Titles of Works
Updated: Sep 4, 2021
We all judge books by their titles. The name Tales of the Bounty Hunters will lead you to different assumptions than The Kiss Quotient.
But what if you couldn’t distinguish the title from the rest of the sentence? If the sentence above had said, “Tales of the bounty hunters will lead you to different assumptions than the kiss quotient,” would the meaning have been clear? Probably not.
Standards for writing titles, such as capitalization and italicization, make it easier for the reader to understand what the writer is communicating. Yet with the rise of easily published, unproofed text and social media that doesn’t allow for italics, a writer can miss a lot of these standards—or simply not know them. That’s why CMOS offers style guidelines for titles in sections 8.156–8.201. That’s a lot of rules, so let’s break them down to the basics.
When writing a title in running text, CMOS calls for headline-style capitalization. The principles can be found in section 8.159, but the general idea is to capitalize most major words. The following words are not capitalized:
The articles a, an, and the, unless at the beginning of the title
Prepositions (unless used adverbially or adjectivally, such as in See It Through)
The coordinating conjunctions and, but, for, or, and nor
The word as
Sections 8.159–8.162 cover trickier situations, such as quotations and species names, so it’s a good idea to bookmark these pages for easy reference.
Italics, Quotation Marks, or Neither?
When I was in elementary school and handwrote book reports, I was taught to underline book titles. Style rules (and my writing) have evolved since then, and many readers will now see underlining as a hint that the text is a hyperlink. So what does a writer do now?
Sections 8.168–8.201 cover treatment of titles, including everything from books to expositions to video games. A good start to understanding these guidelines is to break down the general principles behind whether the writer should use italic formatting, quotation marks, or neither.
Italics: Titles of larger works are usually italicized. This includes books, newspapers, magazines, movies, plays, television series, and podcasts.
Quotation marks: Quotation marks are generally used for shorter works, such as book chapters, poems, articles, episodes of television shows, and folktales.
Neither: While most titles a writer comes across will fit into one of the categories above, a few types of titles won’t quite match. These are mostly more informal names, and they are often set in roman without quotation marks, yet still capitalized. The most notable examples are website titles (ex: Wikipedia). When in doubt, check CMOS.
Titles on Social Media
Social media platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, don’t currently allow for italics in users’ posts. And while The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t have a standard for how to distinguish the title of a larger work on social media, a search of the CMOS FAQ section reveals that the editors at the University of Chicago Press recommend one of three options: use quotation marks, use all capital letters, or leave the title as is.
See the CMOS FAQ entry here for a more thorough explanation.
You can’t keep your readers from judging a title, but you can keep them from judging your grammar. Follow these guidelines for writing titles, and your writing will be clearer and more effective.