In praise of sentence case for headlines

Image: Forrester Research

Mother Jones is posing the ultimate question for a publication: What words should you capitalize in a headline? I certainly know where I stand.

There are four methods to decide which words get capitalized in headings:

  1. Sentence case: Capitalize only the first word, like a sentence. This is now the standard at the Washington Post, LA Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, ABC News, NBC News, CNN, and many other new sources.
  2. Title Case: Capitalize All Words Except Articles, Conjunctions, and Prepositions of Three or Fewer Letters. And always capitalize the first and last word. Title case is the standard at The New York Times, the New Yorker, Vice, Wired, and the Atlantic.
  3. Capitalize Every Word, Even The Articles And Conjunctions. The only publication that I know that consistently does this is my previous employer, Forrester Research. It is idiosyncratic and weird, but it is easy to figure out.
  4. CAPITALIZE EVERY LETTER. Breitbart does this, for example (except that in lists of articles, it doesn’t — the underlying title case peeks out).

The case for sentence case

I reject capitalizing every letter, it takes up too much room and looks too much like a madman shouting. Life is jarring enough without ALL CAPS HEADLINES.

I also reject Forrester’s “Capitalize Every Word” which is out of step with everybody. Every time I cite a Forrester report, copy editors try to fix the capitalization and I have to fix it back. It’s easier for analysts who are concentrating on content over worrying about capitalization rules, but sentence case would be just as easy, and it’s not an oddity.

Between the two popular alternatives, sentence case and title case, I pick sentence case. Here’s why:

  • Pure laziness. I don’t have to remember the oddball rules about long prepositions like Through getting the inital cap, but short ones like of staying lowercase. I don’t have remember that the last word gets capped. And I don’t have to remember that even short prepositions like “Up” get capped if they are part of a phrase like “Hoover Up” (did you know that one?). Finally, I don’t have to worry about stylistic differences — AP lowercases all words of three letters or less, except verbs like Is, and Chicago style lowercases all prepositions, including throughout. Read this guide and boggle.
  • Titles aren’t just titles anymore. They’re also sometimes tweets. They are subheadings in books. They’re email subject lines. They are bolded leaders at the start of bulleted items (like this one). They are figure captions. They’re freakin’ hashtags. Rather than figure out which of these are more like titles and which are more like sentences, it’s easier to treat them all like sentences. This also makes them consistent when they appear together, for example, in a list of Google News search results.
  • It deals with awkward words with caps in the middle. Suppose your headline is “Apple releases new iPhone.” How is that rendered in title case: “Apple Releases New iPhone” or “Apple Releases New Iphone” or “Apple Releases New IPhone”? What’s the right headline: “Acid Rain: pH of Lake is Dangerously Low” or “Acid Rain: PH of Lake is Dangerously Low”

In my first book, they capitalized none of the words in headings, not even the first word, which was a radical stylistic choice to match the type on the cover. But it made me appreciate the calmness of capitalizing titles and headings like a sentence. There’s enough shouting in the world, and too little time to remember all the obscure and highly variable rules.

We’re all going to end up using sentence case eventually. I sentence you to get ahead of the curve and join us.

5 responses to “In praise of sentence case for headlines

  1. Sentence Case: Suppose your headline is “Apple releases new iPhone.” How is that rendered in title case: “Apple Releases New iPhone” or “Apple Releases New Iphone” or “Apple Releases New IPhone”? What’s the right headline: “Acid Rain: pH of Lake is Dangerously Low” or “Acid Rain: PH of Lake is Dangerously Low”

    What do you do if iPhone or pH is the first word in the sentence?

  2. I’ve just emailed this comment to Mother Jones:

    See this paragraph at https://www.motherjones.com/media/2019/08/style-guide-poll/  ?

    “Title case is preferred because it’s familiar, formal, standard, and first. It distinguishes news from noise, and journalism from everything that isn’t. It authenticates and domesticates the wilds of the internet by marking the boundary between careful reporting and bloggy rants. It compels trust, earned or assumed. It has, in a word, gravitas.”

    Every statement after the first sentence is a baseless assertion. How can title case signify gravitas when it’s the case preferred by every semiliterate newsletter of communities and churches?

    I’m with Josh Bernoff, for the reasons he gives at https://withoutbullshit.com/blog/in-praise-of-sentence-case-for-headlines .

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