The Grammarphobia Blog

Capital crimes

Q: I think “without” should be capitalized in titles, but when I use it with an upper-case “w,” Microsoft Word lectures me with a wavy green line and a general explanation about some words this and some words that. I don’t know who designated Microsoft the über-grammarian. If I mail rotten eggs to the Capitals Committee in Redmond, WA, will the Post Office charge me postage?

A: This business about capitalizing or not capitalizing prepositions in headlines and titles and such is just a style convention, one that varies from company to company.

As you may have noticed, some book publishers lowercase all prepositions in titles, a practice that (in my opinion) makes words like “without” and “about” look silly.

At the New York Times, where I used to work, all nouns, pronouns, and verbs, as well as all other words of four letters or more, are capped in headlines and book titles (no matter what they look like on the books’ title pages).

Other words always capped in headlines and titles are “no,” “nor,” “not,” “off,” “out,” “so,” and “up.” Also capped are smaller prepositions when they take on the role of adverbs (as in “Cabbie Fills In as Maternity Nurse” or “Prepositions Take On New Role”).

Never mind what Microsoft Word tells you about capitalization in titles. I find the spell-checker helpful at catching typos, and I get a lot of laughs when it suggests off-the-wall changes for legitimate words. But you can forget the grammar-checker. I turn mine off.

Nobody (except perhaps the grammar cop in your computer) will throw the book at you if you do the reasonable thing and cap all prepositions of more than three letters in titles.

I don’t think, though, that the Post Office would appreciate the rotten eggs. If you’re charged, it probably won’t be for postage.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.