John Larrysson Column: Capitalisation in Captions, Titles and so on...

In captions, titles and other text the capitalisation rules are not as strict as in sentences and depend more on the writer's judgement. Too often people are taught over complicated capitalisation rules. You may have read some rules claiming that certain parts of speech must be capitalised in titles and captions. These rules are false and memorising them makes learning English more difficult.

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The simple true rule: In titles and captions, the first letter is capitalised and the first letter of all important words. It is your judgement which words are important, and not a rule. You want people to notice the important points.

More Girls Run in the Marathon

Legless Boy will be in the Marathon

Some rules say that verbs in captions must be capitalised; this is wrong. Although be is a verb, it is not as important as the verb run. The important words carry the most relevant information. You choose the important words and capitalise them.

In captions and titles some parts of speech are less likely to be capitalised. However it is not helpful to create several extra complicated rules to describe the caption. Nouns, adjectives and verbs are usually, but not always capitalised. Articles, conjunctions and prepositions are usually not capitalised. These preceding two sentences about parts of speech are only observations not rules.

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Captions are labels for pictures or graphs. (see illustration I)

Titles are the name of a book or other work. (This meaning of the word title is different from that used with people's names.) (see illustration II)

Full stops (periods) are sometimes used at the end of complete sentence captions. They are not used for captions that are not full sentences. Full stops are not usually used in titles, even for complete sentences.

Similar to captions

Words in stand-alone lists, graphs, tables, diagrams and so forth are treated the same as captions. They must not have a full stop, unless they are complete sentences.




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Abbreviations (cm, HKSAR, Feb, sp, Dr.) are shortened words. When words are shortened to save space they are usually capitalised as the whole word would be. Names are capitalised, other words are not. However very often English writers still capitalise abbreviations that are not shortened names, such as MB for megabyte. In these cases don't worry too much and try to use what most other English writers use.

cm is centimetre

HKSAR everyone should know

Feb is February

sp is spelling

Dr. is a title and part of a person's name. (See last week's article)

Outside of complete sentences capitalisation rules are really just general suggestions. The writer's reasonable judgement is the rule.

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by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.

Note: Capitalize and capitalise are both used in British English. American English only uses capitalize. Both spellings are correct. As an English reader you should be able to recognise both. However it is tidier to only use one spelling in your writing.

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