Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Head case

Some things should be easier than they apparently are. Pardon me while I fulminate about something as trivial as the capitalization of words in titles, but title case is going to turn me into a head case.

The , which is not the only style manual in the world but is a standard one that many editors refer to on such matters, has a clear and unambiguous instruction for capitalizing words in titles. The Chicago rule is consistent with what I learned in elementary school and so I assume it is not radically different from longstanding traditional practice. I quote it here, from the fourteenth edition of the manual (because I like that one better than the current, fifteenth, edition):

“In regular title capitalization, also known as headline style, the first and last words and all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (if, because, as, that, etc.) are capitalized. Articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor), and prepositions, regardless of length, are lowercased unless they are the first or last word of the title or subtitle. The to in infinitives is also lowercased.…”

That is not a particularly hard rule to remember; however, for those who find it difficult, the option of LOOKING IT UP remains available.

Note in particular the phrase “and prepositions, regardless of length.”

[By the way, I have chosen to use what editors call downstyle and what Microsoft Word calls sentence case in this blog, which means that I capitalize only the first word of headings. That’s just a choice I made; I have nothing against title case in principle and I use it often in work for my clients.]

Okay, back to my fulmination. The newspaper of record, the herself, the [cough] infallible New York Times routinely prints headlines that look like this:
Taking to the Streets,
For Parents’ Sake

The Gender Gap
At School

I do not mean to suggest that the paper does this consistently. They also use downstyle heads and correctly title cased heads. They have no consistent style at all, in other words. I have been noticing this for a while.

Here, , in a front page from a few years ago.

Now—and this is what prompts the present rant—I am sitting here reading William Safire’s “On Language” column from Sunday; and he-of-all-people quotes (accurately?) a headline from another paper altogether, the Washington Times: “Olmert Asks for a Word With Bush…”

As I said, this should not be hard. If Microsoft wanted to, they could even make it automatic when someone selects title case in Word (instead of capitalizing every word, as is currently the result of making that selection). In other words, there is no reason that a newspaper typesetting system cannot automatically set headlines according to a consistent style. This is not rocket science. Maybe it is brain surgery, though, involving heads as it does.

Sometimes it’s hard to just sit down and read the paper for pleasure, y’know what I mean?


Anonymous said...

CMS, by my understanding, is the current version of what began as a Momeographed sheet providing guidance to copyeditors of the U of C Press. I'm guessing that's still its primary function. Implicitly, it concedes that publications have their own styles. The call to use initial caps (in heds) for prepositions of whatver length surely recognizes that many styles have, for decades, used prepositiions' length as the criterion for capitalizing.

Unless the copyeditor is on the publication staff (when he must, of course, follow its style), it seems to me he can follow almost any reasonable style he likes. I've felt a copyeditor is hired to be consistent and reasonable, then to use his own judgement. Informed judgement, ceertainly, but judgement. Disagree? ---ed nelson

Dick Margulis said...


All style choices are arbitrary. This isn't a question of right and wrong, just a question of consistency. I find it odd that a word in a New York Times headline is capped or not based on its position in the line where it is printed (rather than its position in the article title). So if I write about an article and want to faithfully report its title, I have to know how the title was broken in the original paper. What if that changed between the early edition and a later edition to accommodate the addition of a new article to the page? See the problem?