Resources for business and technical writing

Capitals in headings

We often feel uncertain about how to capitalize words in headings. “Should everything be capitalized?” “Isn’t there a rule about not capitalizing articles and prepositions, and what is a preposition anyway?”

There are some very hard and fast rules about how to capitalize English words in sentences. However, when it comes to capitalizing headings, there are only hard and fast suggestions and expectations, but no rules. In the absence of rules, we at least want to be consistent, so publishing organizations have developed style guides that include recommendations on how to capitalize headings. The five style guidelines that influence most of the publications we read include the American Psychological Association Publication Manual (APA), the Canadian Press Stylebook (CP), the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the Modern Language Association Handbook (MLA), and the Plain Language Commission (PLC) recommendations. The reason we find capitalizing headings confusing is that each one has different recommendations.

To help us figure out what to do, let’s quickly review the recommendations of each of these style guides, and then finish with some advice from common business writing experience.

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When to capitalize

Capitalization is writing a word with its first letter as a majuscule (upper case letter) and the remaining letters in minuscule (lower case letters). The term is also used more broadly to refer to any aspect of using upper and lower case letters.

The CP Stylebook offers this basic advise for capitalization.

Capitalize all proper names, trade names, government departments and agencies of government, names of associations, companies, clubs, religions, languages, nations, races, places, and addresses. Otherwise lowercase is favoured where a reasonable option exists.”

Let’s spell this out in a short set of rules.

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