Punctuate Titles Correctly!

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Come on, people!

I finally finished grading my embarrassingly tardy Literature 2 final exams today. It’s not a writing class or even an English class. It’s a straight literature class. For families who want writing, I sign them up for WriteAtHome classes. After today, I might have to insist that every one of them take a WriteAtHome class next year.

I had them write summaries of several of the books we read this year. They also had to identify and explain some quotations taken from the works. Overall, they did fine. They are good, smart kids. I love teaching them.

But for crying out loud — out of the twenty-five students in the class, only one student correctly punctuated titles. Well done, Emma.

I suspect this is just fallout from this age of texting and social media. Young writers are worse than ever at using capitals and any semblance of correct punctuation. I blame the capital-free zone cell phones have become.

Look, I’m not calling for a ban on digital communications. I’m not even suggesting we should be more grammar-conscious in our texts. I’m just saying we need to learn context. We all need to know what kind of writing is appropriate for what setting. Final exams should demand attention to the details of syntax and usage.

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For my lit students and students everywhere, here’s a short review of how to punctuate titles:

Capitalize

Titles should be capitalized. That means the first letter of the first word, the last word, and all important words in between should be a capital. That goes for any kind of title — a book, an article, a poem, a song, a film, etc. By “important words” we mean everything other than articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, etc.), and short prepositions (in,on, to, with, etc.)

Italics = Underlining

This causes some confusion. We used to have to underline titles of longer works. We still do if it’s handwritten. But when you use a keyboard, you should put the titles of longer works in italics. Underlining is the equivalent of italics, but in digital media, italics is preferred. It’s pretty tricky to hand-write in italics, so stick to good old underlining when wielding a pen or pencil.

So, when do you underline or italicize, and when do you use quotation marks?

Underline Big Stuff, Quotation Marks on Small Stuff

That’s the simple rule. If it’s a long work, italicize/underline the title. If it’s a short work or a section of a longer work, put the title in quotation marks.

That means you italicize or underline book titles (e.g., The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick) magazine titles (e.g., World, Sports Illustrated), newspapers (e.g., The New York Times, The Washington Post), plays (e.g., Hamlet, Our Town) movies (e.g., The Matrix, Spider-Man II), TV shows (e.g., The X-Files, Lost), and long poems (e.g., Song of Myself, The Inferno).

Use quotation marks for chapter titles (e.g., “My Life Begins”) magazine articles (e.g., “Top Dogs in Corporate America”), newspaper articles (e.g., “Hamsters Attack Detroit”), songs (e.g., “The Birthday Song”), short stories, (e.g., “To Build a Fire”), and most poems (e.g., “Mending Wall”).

See? It’s not that complicated. When you refer to the title of any kind of work in something you are writing, help your reader identify it as a title by capitalizing correctly and using proper punctuation. Pretty please?

*****

We always love comments. Please ask a question or give me a piece of your mind below!

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian Wasko

Brian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.

View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Patti Greene
    Patti Greene01-09-2017

    Loved your article.

    Two Questions:

    1. When I write the title of my book, should the capitalization for a title be like this?
    Answer Me: Developing a Heart for Prayer or Answer me: Developing a heart for prayer or a different way!

    2. When making lists that include a descriptive paragraph underneath the subtitle of a list within a blog article, how do we write the list title? Caps for each word except the exceptions or Caps for only the first word.
    e.g. Be specific when making prayer requests or Be Specific When Making Prayer Requests.
    And, should a list title have a period at the end if it is a sentence?

    Thanks.
    Patti

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  3. Emily
    Emily11-01-2016

    I am trying to find information on how to correctly punctuate a digital file name. I am writing an instructional that references specific file names. Do I use quotes or italics?

    Example: Please open the file labeled “Step One”.

  4. Cherie Sewell
    Cherie Sewell09-20-2016

    Thank you so much! I just needed a quick, concise answer and you gave it! Much appreciated!

    • Cherie Sewell
      Cherie Sewell09-20-2016

      And I just used too may exclamation points. Duh.

      • Cherie Sewell
        Cherie Sewell09-20-2016

        …many. I’m stopping now.

  5. Catherine
    Catherine08-31-2016

    Short and simple reminders that I needed. I am teaching a class tomorrow and will be reviewing these things with my middle school pupils.

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  7. Carole Riordan
    Carole Riordan07-04-2016

    I am taking a Praxis ELA test. The practice test shows, My favorite works of literature are “The Lottery,” The Sun Also Rises, and “Bartleby the Scrivener.” as the correct way to punctuate. Many years ago I learned that quotes only included the book or story, commas and periods went outside. Has the test made a mistake? it has been known to happen.

  8. Haley
    Haley12-02-2015

    I am writing a title for a theme essay for school. Is my title correctly capitaized?

    Is Being Double Crossed as Fun as Having Double?

  9. Paige
    Paige04-29-2015

    Does the word Magazine get capitalized after the title of the magazine? Ex: People Magazine or People magazine.

  10. Raksha
    Raksha03-15-2015

    How do you punctuate the name of a school?

  11. melinda
    melinda02-06-2015

    Course titles: i am referencing a class itself within a paper. Should it be punctuated like a book title/major work? The boss lady said “i dont think it should be bold and italics, look it up.” Thanks!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko02-06-2015

      No. Class titles are not like book titles. If it’s a specific course title, capitalize the important words: Algebra 201, 20th Century Composers. Don’t capitalize general subjects (economics, history) unless it is a language (Spanish, English) or contains a proper noun (European literature).

  12. Mary
    Mary01-20-2014

    How do you punctuate the title of a book series?

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko01-21-2014

      Good question, Mary. As long as the book series has a formal title, it is rendered the same as a single book title. I would love to give examples here, but there is no italics or underlining feature in the reply section. 🙂

  13. Merri Larsen
    Merri Larsen06-21-2012

    Brian – I feel your pain as I’ve experienced the same situation with my students. I want them to know the right way to italicize even if – for convenience sake – they don’t bother with caps or proper punctuation in their inevitable texting.

    OK – I admit it – I text A LOT (ask my kids) and I sometimes don’t bother with caps or grammar. My bad … or does it just make sense to zip the texts out as fast as humanly possible? I do waver on this!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko06-21-2012

      No, it’s all about context, Merri. I take shortcuts when texting too. It’s the vernacular of the medium. I just want folks to learn to write both ways.

  14. Rhonda Barfield
    Rhonda Barfield06-20-2012

    Good review, Brian– I needed this!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko06-20-2012

      Thanks. Glad it’s helpful.

    • Sarah
      Sarah09-13-2014

      Hi Brian. Thank you for this. I have a hard time not punctuating, even texts. I learned from your post that i have been doing this improperly using quotations everytime (although capitalizing correctly). I am writing my first eBook and running my first blog. I am sure there will be more assitance from you. I do so appreciate your help! (BTW, i do not capitalize “i” unless at start of sentence on purpose. Have a great day 🙂

      • Brian Wasko
        Brian Wasko09-14-2014

        Glad I could help, Sarah. Best of luck with your writing.

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