If your job is writing—whether it’s content marketing, creative essays, or technical handbooks—you know the value of clean copy in improving your readers’ experience and getting your point across succinctly. You likely also know the value of a good style guide toward that aim. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is one of the most respected and comprehensive style guides available, but let’s be honest—it’s a bit thick. Our “Unpacking CMOS” series attempts to demystify Chicago’s seventeenth edition and make its content more accessible to writers looking to improve their work.
CMOS on Titles of Works
But what if you couldn’t distinguish the title from the rest of the sentence? If the sentence above had said, “Tales of the bounty hunters will lead you to different assumptions than the kiss quotient,” would the meaning have been clear? Probably not.
Standards for writing titles, such as capitalization and italicization, make it easier for the reader to understand what the writer is communicating. Yet with the rise of easily published, unproofed text and social media that doesn’t allow for italics, a writer can miss a lot of these standards—or simply not know them. That’s why CMOS offers style guidelines for titles in sections 8.156–8.201. That’s a lot of rules, so let’s break them down to the basics.Standards for writing titles, such as capitalization and italicization, make it easier for the reader to understand what the writer is communicating. #writingtips Click To Tweet
When writing a title in running text, CMOS calls for headline-style capitalization. The principles can be found in section 8.159, but the general idea is to capitalize most major words. The following words are not capitalized:
- The articles a, an, and the, unless at the beginning of the title
- Prepositions (unless used adverbially or adjectivally, such as in See It Through)
- The coordinating conjunctions and, but, for, or, and nor
- The word as
Sections 8.159–8.162 cover trickier situations, such as quotations and species names, so it’s a good idea to bookmark these pages for easy reference.
Italics, Quotation Marks, or Neither?
When I was in elementary school and handwrote book reports, I was taught to underline book titles. Style rules (and my writing) have evolved since then, and many readers will now see underlining as a hint that the text is a hyperlink. So what does a writer do now?
Sections 8.168–8.201 cover treatment of titles, including everything from books to expositions to video games. A good start to understanding these guidelines is to break down the general principles behind whether the writer should use italic formatting, quotation marks, or neither.
- Italics: Titles of larger works are usually italicized. This includes books, newspapers, magazines, movies, plays, television series, and podcasts.
- Quotation marks: Quotation marks are generally used for shorter works, such as book chapters, poems, articles, episodes of television shows, and folktales.
- Neither: While most titles a writer comes across will fit into one of the categories above, a few types of titles won’t quite match. These are mostly more informal names, and they are often set in roman without quotation marks, yet still capitalized. The most notable examples are website titles (ex: Wikipedia). When in doubt, check CMOS.
Titles on Social Media
Social media platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, don’t currently allow for italics in users’ posts. And while The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t have a standard for how to distinguish the title of a larger work on social media, a search of the CMOS FAQ section reveals that the editors at the University of Chicago Press recommend one of three options: use quotation marks, use all capital letters, or leave the title as is.
See the CMOS FAQ entry here for a more thorough explanation.
For distinguishing titles on social media, editors at the University of Chicago Press recommend using quotation marks, all capitals, or leaving the title as is. #writingtips #unpackingcmos Click To Tweet
You can’t keep your readers from judging a title, but you can keep them from judging your grammar. Follow these guidelines for writing titles, and your writing will be clearer and more effective.
What title are you currently writing? Do you need an editor to check your work before publishing? Contact the Scribe Source today for professional editing and proofreading.
About the Author
Hannah studied poetry for her bachelor’s degree, but she promptly switched to creative nonfiction after joining the Rainier Writing Workshop in 2016. She’ll receive her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from RWW this August. When she’s not writing her graduate thesis, she’s busy as our senior editor at the Scribe Source. She joined the team in 2011.