This Is the Right Way to Capitalize Headlines

August 13, 2019 | 1 2 min read

Welcome to Do You Copy, a semi-regular column on copyediting (copy editing? copy-editing?) that investigates some of the editorial life’s deepest mysteries. When is an en dash a better hyphen than a hyphen? Why are there so many stylebooks? Should we give a dang about the interrobang!? Learn the answers to these questions and more, and prepare for punctuation pedantry.

Headline writing is a mug’s game. In print, there’s rarely much space to play around. On the web, there’s too much space, and readers don’t click on anything interesting. And no matter how hard headlinese writers may try, they’ll never beat Variety headlines from the 1940s. It’s rough out there.

But when a hed is finally finished after much hemming, hawing, and editing, writers and editors are faced with an even tougher challenge: knowing which words to capitalize and which to keep in lowercase. There are just so many parts of speech! And so many words with multiple uses! Recalling all the ins and outs of proper headline capitalization is a daunting task indeed.

Which is why, after being shackled to a table adjacent to a whiteboard with nothing but pamplemousse La Croix to hydrate him for nearly an hour, Publishers Weekly managing editor Dan Berchenko laid out for me a strategic plan for capitalizing correctly in headlines (and in any titles, actually!) in the remixed and modified University of Chicago style that is PW’s own. It has been birthed in the form of this handy flowchart, the product of the blood, carbonated sweat, and grapefruity tears of an expert grammarian. Use it wisely.

But wait, you say. Surely there must be exceptions. What about the phrase take on, for instance? Or team up? Surely both those words would be capitalized! Well…. “The word up in team up is not a preposition—it’s an adverb,” Dan clarifies between gulps of sweet, sweet seltzer. “It modifies team as a verb—‘I teamed up with X.’ If it were a preposition there, you’d literally be talking about teaming above something, which is nonsensical. Almost all short words have multiple functions, and you have to think about the function, not the word. In other words,” he clarified, “it’s not an exception.”

Exactly. There are no exceptions in copyediting. Except for all the exceptions, of course.

Image credit: Unsplash/Amador Loureiro.

is senior news and digital editor at Publishers Weekly and a founding editor of The Dot and Line, a web publication of animation journalism. His work has been published by Vulture, Polygon, and The Los Angeles Times, among others.