DR. ENGLISH: Capitalization 

If you’re like many individuals who learned English in the U.S. school system, you were probably told that, when it came to titles, you should not capitalize “little words,” like “to” and “is.” In my humble opinion, such guidance is absolutely wrong (and no, that is not how I “really feel about it,” because how I “really feel about it” isn’t printable in this august (actually July and August) publication). Here’s the rule you should follow.

The first word of a title is always capitalized, except when the word begins with a letter that maybe shouldn’t be capitalized, like “e-mail.” (Note that “e-mail” is far preferred to “email” because “email” has more than one meaning, with the lesser- known meaning (but only after the development of e-mail) being a hard enamel obtained by heating special paints in a furnace.) In that case, e-Mail may do, although, because that looks somewhat strange, most people seem to be using E-mail; it’s your call. But I digress.

All other words in a title should be capitalized, with the exception of:

  • articles (a, an, the);
  • coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet), and
  • prepositions (to, on, from, beneath, around, et al.).

The “little word” most commonly – and improperly – lower-cased probably is “is,” which should be capitalized because it’s a verb. “But it’s so little,” die-hard wrong-thinkers might say. Of course, the word “pi” is just as little, too, but even most die-hard wrong-thinkers wouldn’t think of belittling it via lower-case-in-a-title status.

Besides, if you’re going to lower-case “is,” then – logically – you would also have to lower-case “isn’t” (which in its uncontracted form in an improperly rendered title might otherwise have to look like “…is Not…” given that “not” is an adverb, unless one wants to argue that three-letter words also are little, which would open the floodgates), and, possibly, “would have been,” given that the latter, too, is just a variant of the verb “to be.”

Interestingly, the “to” of “to be” should be capitalized, because a word becomes a part of speech only when used in a sentence, and when “to” is used as part of the infinitive “to be,” it is not a preposition.

What part of speech is it? It could be an expletive, which is a word that otherwise has no meaning (such as “there” in “There is no reason for…” or “it” in “It is a wonderful day today.”) or an oath of some kind (a cuss word, if you will, a definition that emerged thanks to the Nixon tapes).

It could also be a particle, an old word given a new meaning by people who evidently were unaware that “expletive” already existed to fill the bill. In either case – expletive or particle – “to” would be capitalized. Thus, were one to have as a title “To Sing and To Dance” (or To Sing and To Dance were it a book), the “to” of “To Dance” would be capitalized, whereas the “to” of “Walking to Memphis” would be lower-cased, because “to” in that usage is a preposition.

If you have questions about English usage, send them along to Dr. English at [email protected]…if you dare.