To Be or Not to Be in Capitals: That Is the Question

It's not as poetic as Shakespeare's eternal question, but the choice of whether to capitalize the verb 'to be' in titles continues to be pondered through the years. For most people, difficulties with capitalization in titles started at around 9 years old. When your teacher was asked if you're supposed to capitalize all the words in a title, he/she probably said to "capitalize the first and last words and then capitalize all the big words." But what constitutes a big word? Is it the actual length? Now that we're no longer 9 years old, is there a better way? And if so, why are people so inconsistent?

Why Does it Matter?

Titles are designed to jump out at the reader. They break up the text and attract the reader's eye. So once you've added bold, underline, italics or a big font, it's one of the most glaring places in a document to make mistakes. It screams out at the reader and makes them wonder what else lurks in less obvious parts of the document.

To find out how common this type of error is, we used PerfectIt, Intelligent Editing's add-in for MS Word that finds inconsistencies, to check 1000 randomly selected documents. PerfectIt provides a powerful way to check for inconsistent capitalization of titles because it:

  • sorts titles by heading level and only compares titles at the same level that have the same formatting
  • finds inconsistent capitalization of titles throughout the document
  • takes into account names and other words that appear in capitals when determining title case.

Each document we tested was 1500 words or more and was downloaded from the internet using the search term "final report". The results show that more than four in ten documents have inconsistent capitalization of titles. That's an incredible proportion of documents that look sloppy and need better editing.

The Correct Way to Capitalize a Title

When we talk about capitalizing a title, there are three common distinctions:

  • All capitalized, e.g. Gone With The Wind
  • Sentence case, e.g. Gone with the wind
  • Mixed case, e.g. Gone with the Wind

The trouble is that within the third option, there are a number of variations of which words should be lowercase. There is no single correct way. Rather, different style guides have different preferences. The options are summarized in a Wikipedia entry on headings and publication titles, and are adapted to the most common styles here:

Table 1: Options for Capitalizing Titles
There Is A Big Difference Between The Countries Start capitals – capitalization of all words, regardless of the part of speech
There Is a Big Difference Between the Countries Capitalization of all words, except for articles, shorter prepositions, and conjunctions
There is a Big Difference Between the Countries Capitalization of all words, except for articles, shorter prepositions, conjunctions, and forms of 'to be'
There is a Big Difference between the Countries Capitalization of all words, except for articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and forms of 'to be'
There is a big difference between the countries Sentence case

A Reason for the Mistakes?

Since so many errors are creeping into published documents, we wanted to find out if this is caused by confusion over which words should be lowercase. In particular, we wanted to find out if the inconsistencies were caused by different preferences for:

  • the verb 'to be'
  • longer prepositions such as 'between'.

Across 417 documents with inconsistent title capitalization, we tested over 5,300 titles to find instances of the verb 'to be' and longer prepositions. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the titles were in sentence case or started in capitals and therefore had to be excluded. Of those in mixed case, only nine titles contained the verb 'to be' (one capitalized, eight not). There were sixteen mixed case titles with longer prepositions (seven capitalized, eleven not).

The sample size is too small to draw conclusions about writing preferences. However, it does provide some evidence that despite a wealth of style guides that prefer the verb 'to be' to be capitalized, a lot of authors do not write that way. It seems the advice from our teachers when we were 9 years old sticks with us.

The small sample size actually does help prove one thing. It shows the overwhelming majority of errors are not being caused by confusion over differences in the verb 'to be' or longer prepositions. The majority are being caused by something much more basic: a failure to check for consistency.

How to Check for Errors

We can't know whether authors simply forget to check for consistency or if they find it difficult. It may be that checking back across multiple page documents is challenging, or that authors use different rules for different heading levels and end up confused. If the document is written by multiple authors, that could also explain how inconsistencies find their way into the final text. If you're checking manually, it's worth writing down the preferred style for each heading level before you edit the text and check back against that each time you reach a title.

However, there is a faster and more accurate way. PerfectIt can scan an entire document in seconds, and compare every title to every other title at the same heading level. It finds inconsistencies in title capitalization and makes it easy to move back and forth between them. PerfectIt is free to try and can be downloaded here.

Check Your Text Faster with PerfectIt