As I was checking out the upcoming books for gifts for my dad’s and brothers’ birthdays, of course I noted all sorts of books for me, instead. There was I Am Ozzy , coming out the week of my dad’s birthday. Probably not the title for him, despite my own compelling interest; he might prefer Tea with Hezbollah by Ted Dekker.
And my brother’s birthday week features the release of The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford, also a title more to my taste than his.
But what caught my eye was how the short “Am” was capped in the Ozzy title while “at” was lowercase, and “Our” is capped whereas “the” is not. A lot of readers, not privy to the ins and outs of capitalization style, might well want to bite the head off a bat (Ozzy reference) when faced with such puzzlement.
(A bit of tech talk: Capital letters are properly known as uppercase; small letters are lowercase.)
The mighty orange Chicago Manual of Style [CMOS] has pretty much ruled the capitalization of book titles in book publishing for decades, yet even CMOS admits its rules of headline-style uppercasing and lowercasing are “admittedly arbitrary.”
Let’s delve into the arbitrary!
# 1 Uppercase Nouns, Pronouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Adverbs, and Prepositions when used as Conjunctions [Thus, “Am” is a verb; voilà, cap it. Thus, in my imaginary title, “Ins” is a noun; cap it. And don’t forget to cap poor little “It” and “Is,” two lonely words that are perhaps most often improperly lowercased.]
# 2 Uppercase the first and last word of any title or subtitle. [Thus, Where It’s At gets a cap “At.”]
# 3 Lowercase a, an, the; and, but, or, nor; to, as [That means lowercase all the “the”s, unless “the” is the first word in a title or subtitle or—an intriguing thought—the last.]
# 4 Lowercase prepositions, regardless of length, unless they are stressed in the title. [Thus, you may be “at the Enemies Table” but they still don’t get to cap their “at.”]
# 5 Do you have a hyphenated word in your title?
simple rule: lowercase the second word unless it’s a proper noun or proper adjective.
complex rule: You don’t want to know it. Really. Just buy Chicago if you’re in that deep.
What other capitalization mysteries mystify you? Do you cap the "the" in The New Yorker? Do you scoff at their pretensions and lowercase it? And, most pressing, do you know of a book title that ends with “the”?
Ellen Scordato taught grammar and punctuation at the New School as a part-time faculty member for more than 10 years. One of the partners in the Stonesong Press, she has more than 25 years of copy editing and managing editorial experience.
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