Incorrect headings are a problem faced by most inexperienced authors and publishers.
Trained readers can recognize a minor error at a glance, a punctuation mark in the wrong place, or a random typo.
That could impact how people read your book as it will always separate it from perfection.
But when you specifically choose to ignore all the rules, you can do basically anything that works for your cover design.
There are, however, situations where you have to know how to punctuate book titles.
This is why we want to give a few guidelines to help young authors stop second questioning themselves.
Some Choose to Rebel Against the Rules
First of all, I would like to cheer you up. Don't think that only novice authors have issues with book punctuation.
But some just don’t think about the rules and choose to follow their own creative principles to point out an idea or a feeling. Or, in other cases, it’s all about making a great design for the book cover.
Here are a few examples of such cover designs.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama broke the first golden rule on the cover of his book.
He mixed the lower and upper cases and removed the capital letters in the first word.
There have also been cases where the entire header was written in lowercase.
Another example is that some authors added a hyphen when there was no need for it, but it helped with reading the titles faster and more naturally.
Punctuation for book titles is, of course, important. But a correctly written title adhering to all the rules may not always interest the reader. Still, it's worth looking at the rules but also as a visual component of the cover.
Besides, it's helpful if you're self-publishing and you're doing all the editing yourself.
A possible piece of advice to avoid unnecessary complications and overthinking is to use a short and sweet title, following the example of Stephen King.
But that's not always possible. So, let's go through a few guidelines and see how to use punctuation for a book title.
How to Punctuate a Book Title
Should you write your titles in sentence case? Title case? All caps?
Questions that will haunt every writer.
Let's see the basics of book title punctuation.
Most, if not all, titles in English are written in title case. However, if you're not writing in English, Anglicism should be avoided, and adhere to the rules of the language you're writing in.
We should also mention that there are four major title capitalization styles:
- Associated Press Stylebook (AP Style): with this style, you will capitalize the words with four or more letters;
- American Psychological Association (APA Style): with this style, you will capitalize the words with five or more letters;
- The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago Style): if you use this writing style, you don't have to take into account the word's length, and you will capitalize all the important words;
- Modern Language Association (MLA Style): if you choose this one, you’ll capitalize all major words and those that have four letters or more.
Each style is used for a certain type of writing. For example, the AP Style is used in journalism, the MLA for academic purposes, while the Chicago Style is used for extensive writing, book publishing, and academic writing.
Rules to follow when using title case
Although there are four different styles when it comes to capitalizing your title, there are a few general rules:
- Capitalize the first word in the title
- Capitalize the last word in the title
- Capitalize the important words in the title
- Capitalize compound words (e.g., Science Fiction)
Now, a question could be: which are considered "important" words in a headline? In most cases, you should capitalize the following words:
- Adjectives (e.g., beautiful, happy, aloof)
- Adverbs (e.g., silently, gracefully, clumsily)
- Nouns (e.g., book, phone, typewriter)
- Pronouns (e.g., they, she, he)
- Subordinating conjunctions (e.g., as, so, that)
- Verbs (e.g., write, jump, read)
Words in headlines you don’t generally capitalize:
- Articles (a, an, the)
- Coordinating Conjunctions (and, but, for)
- Short words (less than five letters)
- Prepositions (at, by, from)
Rules to follow when using sentence case
There is just one rule, basically. If you choose to use sentence case style, you capitalize only the first letter of the first word and proper nouns. Like you would do when writing a sentence.
Some writers prefer this style as it's more casual and gives a feeling of consistency.
The Chicago Manual of Style
The Chicago Manual of Style (aka Chicago style) is mostly used in academic and book publishing. It became a reference for writers and editors because it was one of the first style guides to be published.
So, besides the already mentioned general aspects that apply to this style too, let's see a few of this style's particularities when it comes to book name punctuation:
For hyphenated titles:
- Capitalize the first element of the hyphenated word;
- Capitalize the following element of the hyphenated word unless it's an article, preposition, or coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor):
E.g., High-Quality Services for All Users Worldwide
- Capitalize the second element in a hyphenated, spelled-out ordinal number.
E.g., Twenty-Ninth of October Is a Day to Remember
- Don't capitalize the second element if the compound word starts with a prefix that could not stand alone by itself (such as anti- or pre-).
E.g., Pre-existing Conditions Can Influence Results
Both Chicago and AP Styles say you should capitalize the first word after a colon in title case:
E.g., A Webinar for Writers: Learn How to Punctuate Your Titles
In book titles with colons written in sentence case, you should capitalize the first word after the colon only if it can stand as an independent clause.
E.g., I know who you are: You're a thief
You can access this extensive article from UChicago News to learn more about the Chicago style and the differences between it and the Oxford writing style.
Exception: Some writers who really pay attention to punctuation for the book title will capitalize the preposition that belongs to a phrasal verb even if they are not on the list of words that should be capitalized.
It is mostly used for content in magazines, blogs, and other minor publications.
E.g., How to Back Up Important Data on Your Drive
How To Punctuate the Title Page
The cover and the book's title serve as the "face" of the entire work. It will definitely help your book get noticed on Amazon and other essential stores.
But it is important not to focus only on the book's title, forgetting its other components.
Remember that the title forms only the initial opinion, so it's essential to know how to punctuate the title of a book. But it's equally important to know how to design the following pages properly.
The title page is (typically) the first page of a book that meets the reader immediately after the cover.
It contains the title, subtitle, author's name, publisher, and year of issue.
Here, you can write the title in proper capitalization or use all caps, small caps, or bold.
The title is usually placed in the middle of the page, followed by the subtitle, which you can put right underneath. You can also separate it from the title with a colon or write it in italics.
The title needs to be clear, written in legible fonts, and here too, you can choose to stick to the rules or go for different formatting that adheres to artistic purposes.
Although you will follow one of the writing styles we previously mentioned, there are still a few standards you should take into account when processing the title page:
- Do not enclose the header in quotation marks.
- Do not add a full stop at the end of the title.
If you want to know how to correctly punctuate a book title, it is enough to have free access to the internet and a few tools that will help you with the book title punctuation:
- Headline Capitalization, where you can even choose the preferred headline style.
- Grammarly, for editing or grammar check, so no mistake would remain unnoticed.
These tools will be enough to upload the text to the site, and the system will detect all the errors. As a result, you will get a complete check of your text and punctuation for book titles.
How to Use Punctuation Marks in a Book Title
So, we talked about title case, sentence case, and the way you can forget about all the rules when it comes to artistic purposes.
There’s another thing that can emphasize an idea and showcase the style you’re aiming for: punctuation marks.
Typically, we use dashes, colons, question marks, and exclamation points intuitively or by adhering to the standard rules of a particular language. But that may not be enough for book writers.
The punctuation marks in the headings are set according to certain canons, taking into account the book's mood, objectives, and narrative format.
You should think about what feeling you want your readers to get after punctuating book titles. As a general rule, you shouldn’t use full stops in your titles.
But other punctuation marks are acceptable for setting the right intonation:
- «?» - doubt, question;
- «!» - astonishment, delight, joy, emotional appeal;
- «...» - for showing a pause in the speech or an incomplete idea that you will continue in your book.
The headers may also have commas, dashes, or colons. The attractiveness of the title and the reader's interest in the entire book depends on it.
If you choose a title that sets you apart from other titles through its artistic format, you can also use the same style throughout the book.
Or use a title perfectly adjusted to the rules and then deviate from the punctuation marks in your novels.
For example, the American novelist Cormac McCarthy is already recognized as a living classic. He earned his recognition as a writer due to the success of the novel Blood Meridian.
He stands out because of his love of linguistic experiences and artistic expression.
Cormac McCarthy believes that you don't need punctuation if you write properly. In his mind, quotation marks are "weird little characters," so he tries to avoid them. And you can notice it in his novels The Road and No Country for Old Men. But the author does not deny the need to use commas, capital letters, and periods.
It is worth saying that Cormac McCarthy is not the only representative of the literary world who ignores the rules of punctuation.
The list of authors who created their own writing rules, which surprised many readers, also includes:
- William Faulkner: Wrote The Sound and the Fury using unusual syntax. His advice to understand a difficult paragraph: "Read it four times."
- E. E. Cummings: Ignores the standard rules of capitalization and punctuation in his work "r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r" (even the title is something totally different from what you usually see), which at first read seems cryptic.
- Timothy Dexter: Published A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress, which is so badly written and punctuated that the original transcription is near-illegible.
- Marcel Proust: Ignores the full stop in the 601-word long sentence (847 words in the original French text) in the first volume, Swann's Way, from his masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.
- Gertrude Stein: Called the comma "a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath."
Considering how to punctuate a book title, we referred here to other publishers' experiences. Despite the deviation from the usual foundations of punctuation, these writers could win worldwide fame and recognition.
Authors abandon established canons and create their works using unconventional techniques. By analyzing the author's punctuation style, it’s possible to determine the specificity of the novel and explore the non-standard author's syntax.
It should be noted that a well-designed book attracts more readers. This is why you need to pay attention to the title of the book, the cover’s design, and the formatting of its content.
And also to the form in which it will be printed and given to the buyer.
Experiment with a style, different fonts, sizes, and punctuation marks, and get a flawless print-ready PDF. Turn it into a book and share it with the world.
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