English English language Style Usage

A capital offense?

Q: I’m a New Yorker working in China. I recently began studying Mandarin via the video series “Growing up with Chinese.” Now, I’m a bit confused about something. Shouldn’t the “up” in the title be capitalized?

A: The capitalizing of words in titles is a matter of style, not grammar or usage. Different newspapers, magazines, book publishers, news blogs, TV shows, and other media organizations often have different styles for titles.

The two most common styles for titles, both online and off, are sentence style and headline style. We use sentence style for the titles of our posts while our old boss, the New York Times, uses headline style for the titles of most articles.

In sentence style, according to The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), “only the first word in a title … and any proper names are capitalized.”

In headline style, Chicago says, the conventions of capitalization “are governed mainly by emphasis and grammar.” The style guide’s rules for headline-style titles include:

● capitalize the first and last words, and all major words;

● lowercase “a,” “an,” and “the”;

● lowercase all prepositions except when used as adjectives or adverbs;

● lowercase “and,” “but,” “for,” “or,” and “nor.”

The manual acknowledges that its rules are “occasionally arbitrary,” and many media organizations differ with Chicago on one point or another. The New York Times, for instance, uppercases all words over four letters, including prepositions.

Getting back to your question, the title of the video series (“Growing up with Chinese”) is properly capitalized if judged by the Chicago Manual’s principles for sentence-style titles., the English-language website of China Central Television, usually uses sentence-style headlines.

In headline style, according to the Chicago rules, the title of that educational video series would be “Growing Up with Chinese.”

There are two good arguments for capitalizing “up” in a title like this.

First, the word “up” is an adverb here, not a preposition. In headline style, major words like adverbs (including little ones) are capitalized.

Second, “grow up” is a phrasal verb, and all parts of a phrasal verb are uppercased in headline-style capitalization. “Growing up” is a form (the present participle) of “grow up.”

A phrasal verb consists of a verb plus another word—usually an adverb or preposition—that function together as a single unit. The two words together mean something different from the combined meanings of the individual words.

Common examples are “log off,” “back down,” “wear out,” and “give up.” 

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), labels “grow up” a phrasal verb, while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and the Oxford English Dictionary simply call it an intransitive verb. (An intransitive verb doesn’t have a direct object.)

The OED says the verb “grow up” means “to advance to or towards maturity.”

Oxford’s citations include an example in the participial form. It comes from an 1875 translation of Plato’s Dialogues: “His children, one of whom is growing up.”

If you’d like to read more, we wrote a post a few years ago (“Ups and downs in titles”) about headline and sentence style.

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