There’s a lot that goes into crafting the perfect headline for your article.
Even if you get past the keyword research stage, choosing the right phrasing to make it stand out, and consulting your peers for feedback, you still have to determine how to style it correctly.
While the two best headline capitalization styles are decidedly title case and sentence case, it’s not as simple as picking one and running with it.
There are questions that you must answer to find which is best for your article:
What does my audience prefer? Is the title a complete sentence or just a phrase? What “vibe” do I want the article to give off? What other factors do I need to consider?
Without further ado, let’s make a case for each case:
The capitalization of a title in which every “big” word (essentially, any word that is not an article, preposition, or conjunction) is capitalized, with a few exceptions.
The exceptions and variations to the rule tend to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis (pun intended), typically by referencing a style guide, such as MLA, APA, or Chicago, or by plugging it into a title capitalization tool.
Why use title case?
Certain industries have a natural “tone” that content follows logically in order to fit the personality.
For instance, press releases and books are more traditional mediums that still require headlines and usually adhere to styling rules more strictly, so they tend to use title case to give it the official, professional, and trustworthy feel that you’d expect to see.
Also, insurance, accounting, law, and other industries that don’t predominantly have a modern edge to them (or are highly regulated) typically mesh well with the more formal impression that title case gives.
The simplest way to decide how to capitalize your title is to look at the grammatical structure: is it a phrase or a complete sentence?
If it’s a short, punchy phrase—especially one that’s less than 4 words—then title case is the logical way forward. Case closed.
Most schools in the US taught us to capitalize your titles using title case as it’s traditionally what newspapers and research paper headlines alike are presented in.
Unless you use Google’s style guide for reference, the “original” ones that are commonly referenced, including APA, MLA, and Chicago, will tell you to use title case without question.
While this may seem like the weakest reason to choose to go title case with your headlines, it’s important to consider your audience, too.
Do your ideal customers skew older or younger?
Chances are, if they are older than millennials, title case was indoctrinated into them at a young age and is therefore what they’re more used to.
The familiarity and properness of title case, for older demographics, makes headlines styled in this way look nicer and more official to them as a whole.
Of course, individual people have varying preferences, but, generally speaking, the older your audience, the more likely they are to positively receive your headlines in title case.
The symmetry of title case is appealing to many.
While sentence case has only one capitalized letter at the very beginning (more on that later), title case can lend a nice balance to the headline because the shape doesn’t start large and end small; it varies more naturally with the letters' “peaks” and “tails,” as I like to call them.
Then there’s the fact that title case titles stand out more and come equipped with their own natural emphasis.
The less homogeneous flow there is between word shapes, such as having capital letters mixed in with the lowercase, the more attention is paid to each word.
Title case supports the web design principle of dominance, where virtual hierarchy is assigned to different elements (such as H1-H3) to guide the reader along.
You don’t want your reader to start with the subtitle or body text before scanning the headline first, right?
The capital letters in title case provide a solid focal point, or starting point, so the reader is easily guided down the article in the proper order, following the page structure instinctively to provide a pleasant and effortless reading experience.
So, what elements are typically important to rank?
The dominant element, of course, would be your title—that should be read first.
The second-most important element, or subdominant element, would be your author name, date, or body text, depending on what the next logical section is for the reader to take in after the first.
Title case, ultimately, is a good idea if your audience says so, whether it be through your findings while conducting buyer persona research or based on analysis (such as heat maps or website visitor analytics).
To many, title case is considered more decorative, and it clearly stands out as a headline when put into context.
Whether you’re using title case because you don’t have styling options in your article (H1, H2, etc.) and want to differentiate between headline and body, such as in a Google Post, or you’re dropping a title reference mid-paragraph, it’s a clear indication to users that it’s a headline and not just another sentence.
In the case that you’re referencing another article within your article like mentioned above, it’s much easier for the eyes to notice a sudden change from all lowercase to some capitalization to signify that they’re reading a headline.
While you could put the title in quotes if it’s written in sentence case, that could quickly add up and clutter a page if multiple headlines are cited:
In a previous article, Top 7 Reasons Why a Blog is Essential for the Modern Business, I cover the importance of updating your website to keep it relevant for search engines.
Having a strong and compelling narrative for your brand, as explained in the article “How to use storytelling to empower your customers,” is essential to gaining customer loyalty.
In example A, the capitalization allows the eye to infer that there is a title being referenced. In example B, while the quotation marks accomplish the same task, they could be mistaken for a quote instead, making their function less clear-cut.
Why not use title case?
Some may argue that title case is harder to register and therefore slightly slower to read, but studies have found that, while that’s indubitably the case for all caps (LIKE SO), the difference in efficiency between title and sentence case is actually quite minimal, making that argument little more than a myth.
Even with the research debunking this notion, some readers vehemently insist that title case is choppier and therefore harder for them to read. More often than not, however, these rebutters are heavily biased toward sentence case from the get-go.
While many think that title case is more aesthetically pleasing, others dare to disagree, citing the interruption of visual flow and clutter or choppiness as their reasons against it.
If the title of your article is well over 6 words, it can certainly look like a dramatic mess with capital and lowercase letters all thrown about.
If the spacing and line height of your blog is large enough to accommodate, though, it allows title case to breathe a little more and avoid looking overwhelming.
For the less formal readers, title case simply feels too proper and serious.
If your topic is indeed quite serious, you can easily dismiss this notion and dress up your title for the occasion (if sentence case is like a button down and khakis, title case is more like a suit).
Let’s take a closer look at the other popular styling option:
The capitalization of a title in which the first letter of the first word is capitalized and the rest are lowercase, like in a regular sentence.
Why use sentence case?
More “casual” industries, such as retail, entertainment, and virtually anything that markets to younger people, should use sentence case to reflect the aura of the industry.
If the goal is to connect with readers who are predominantly casual in their interactions, mirroring this style would appeal to them more than not.
In fact, B2B companies can also fall under the casual umbrella depending on how tech-savvy their audience is.
Usually, determining if sentence case is a good fit for your brand’s headline is a matter of assessing how on- or off-brand it would feel to be formal or casual in your writing.
If your company is quirky or unorthodox in some way, chances are that sentence case will fit your style more.
If the title is a complete sentence, then sentence case is officially the correct style that you should default to grammar-wise.
It makes quite a bit of sense, too, as a sentence tends to contain more words and would therefore make for quite the monstrous headline if packed full of capital letters.
While title case makes the entire headline stand out more to the reader, many writers, designers, developers, and the like will claim that it simultaneously makes it harder to differentiate between proper nouns and, well, regular nouns.
Ambiguity is the breeding grounds for a semantic disaster. #contentmarketing #UX #writing
Consider these two titles:
Montana Schools Tackle Coke Addiction
Montana schools tackle Coke addiction
Title 1 can have two different meanings while 2 has a single clear one, so in the case that there’s a proper noun involved that can alter the title meaning, sentence case may be a safer option for the sake of clarity.
Are you writing content for a millennial audience?
If the answer is yes, then you’re almost certainly more likely to get them to read the headline if it’s in sentence case, as that’s what younger audiences predominantly prefer.
If the answer is no, then you still should determine which style resonates better with your audience through small surveys or analyzing the analytics of your blog—in short, it’s best not to assume one way or the other.
Even so, many younger demographics or more tech-savvy ones prefer to use sentence case.
This is likely due to the ongoing cultural shift of becoming increasingly casual in our human interactions, writing included, as well as the explosion of the internet and the casual lingo that is used within it.
The general consensus among readers, besides those sticklers for proper formatting (guilty as charged), is that using sentence case for titles is more human and fits the informal feel of the times we live in.
Title case can easily get inconsistent, especially since there are multiple interpretations of which words should be capitalized or not.
If your team isn’t 100% on the same page of which title case rules to follow, the inconsistency that results could cause readers to pause and do a double-take, get distracted by an error in capitalization, or otherwise break their flow.
You don’t want to downgrade your content with a simple UX issue—if you want to be entirely safe and avoid inconsistencies, sentence case could be a simple fix.
Better yet, it simplifies your brand’s style guide, too, as you won’t have to take the time to memorize which words get capitalized or not when using sentence case.
Essentially, the US is the biggest fan of title case—most other English-speaking countries, let alone non-English-speaking ones, default to sentence case. Why?
In the case of England and Australia, that’s just the way it is.
When it comes to other languages, however, there are some very practical applications.
For instance, the German language requires capitalizing nouns, so title case would throw off a German reader as she would not be able to easily identify the nouns in the title for better and faster comprehension.
If your audience is only in the US, then reference other factors to determine which case to implement in your headlines.
Otherwise, if you’re writing internationally-targeted content, think global—use sentence case to cater to more audiences rather than fewer.
As a general rule of thumb, the internet comes equipped with its own level of casualness, probably because people use it to quickly and frequently communicate, so they don’t have time to optimize their messages with proper grammar and the works.
So, to mirror this culture, writing on the web tends to lean toward more of a conversational and casual spirit. In essence, the rule is: new medium, new tone.
Therefore, if you’re writing articles online, the default is to go with sentence case as this adds a natural element to the style and reflects how you would have a conversation as opposed to how you would write a dissertation.
Why not use sentence case?
There are pros and cons to both sides of the spectrum, and it’s important to recognize the cases in which sentence case may do more harm than good.
It is possible to get too simple—worse yet, oversimplifying the headline can actually make it more complicated, ironically.
First, differentiating between an official title and another sentence, when styling is limited, can be tough. If a reader (especially a fervent grammarist) perceives your title to be a sentence without proper punctuation, you can instantly turn them off from reading any further.
Not only are you (unforgivingly) breaking a core grammatical rule when that happens, but you’re also potentially turning off older generations by showing a lack of respect for language usage and proper styling.
Second, it can blend into the text too easily and break the UX rule of dominance, so it’s not a practical choice if styling is limited enough that your H1s and H2s are not differentiable or nonexistent.
You obviously want your readers to start with the title, so if it’s all the same font size and such, you might as well use title case to help the headline stand out even a little bit.
Finally, many people think of sentence case as just too darn casual, signifying the deterioration of grammar as we know it in American writing.
Some people may outright call it sloppy, and you certainly don’t want that notion as part of your brand perception.
So far, it may seem like there’s no ultimately right or wrong answer, and that’s technically correct. Let’s recap on how to determine which to use so that you don’t feel as lost as when you first arrived on this journey:
The Bottom Line
It’s highly subjective if you haven’t picked up on that yet.
There are no studies that prove one side or the other as the true best, most efficient answer—most studies instead contrast sentence case and title case against all uppercase, much to the chagrin of hardy debaters on the topic.
It turns out, too, that title case is used so often that your eyes and brain are used to processing it anyway, so don’t focus on reading comprehension or speed when deciding which to use.
Besides, the myth about people reading based on the words’ shapes has been debunked: it’s all about parallel recognition, where readers look for patterns in letter sequences to identify words instead.
Most importantly, though, you should consider the overall preference of your ideal audience above all else. If they say title case, you give ‘em their titles with proper style formatting. If they say sentence case, throw (most of) the rules out the window and deliver on their modern needs.
Essentially, it boils down to balancing readability with “making it pretty,” so you should do what’s most logical based on the existing information you have. How you style your headlines affects readability, comprehension, and UX, so the only wrong answer is to not take the time to optimize this element of your writing.
While there are a few other options, such as writing headlines in all uppercase or all lowercase, these are largely unpopular and may be even more distracting as a result.
If they work for your brand’s and audience’s personality, however, go for it.
For instance, my father is an artist (not the starving kind, luckily) and insists on having all lowercase titles wherever possible because he believes it gives his brand image the impression of being more artistic and unique.
If it feels right, and you have information to back that feeling, then try it out.
If you’re leaning toward all caps, however, keep in mind that this style tends to portray shouting over the internet and is by far the least readable format out there. Choose wisely and have a good reason for your choice.
No matter what style you pick, make sure you stick with it; details matter. Even if the majority of your audience doesn’t care, the finickiest of readers will notice and appreciate it if you maintain a consistency in usage and voice.
At the end of the day, one thing remains true...the best way to find the right answer is to test every headline and let the data speak to the truth.
As a content marketer at heart, I spoke mostly about how to choose between title or sentence case for headlines, but there are other places where making this decision is necessary.
In terms of UX, here are some good rules to follow for best results:
- Title case is best for buttons with no punctuation if you want symmetry, though some disagree and prefer sentence case for personal reasons. If there is punctuation, such as with a button labeled “Send it!” use sentence case every time.
- Breadcrumbs (such as Home > Memberships > Podcast Studio) are easier to scan for the user when written in sentence case; title case often gets too cluttered and complicates the experience.
- Input fields, like in a form, can vary: if the fields are long, use sentence case. If they’re short, use title case; however, if they’re not easily distinguishable from the actual input due to styling, use title case to avoid confusion.
- Always consider familiarity for users: if elements typically have one case or another generally across the web, default to the common one to avoid disrupting UX.
- Overall, title case is best for short phrases or small sections of text, including logos, labels, and menus.
That’s all you need to know to get the right headline format down pat for your brand. Now go, test, and wow your audience with your perfectly optimized headlines!