Words [Not] to Capitalize in AP-Styled Titles: Don’t Mess With a Mouse

To capitalize or not to capitalize: that is the question for any writing that involves titles or headings. There are several different styles to consider, such as AP, MLA, sentence-styled, etc. And, there are many great resources that detail the pros and cons of the various capitalization approaches, such as Grammar Girl’s article on capitalizing titles. I’m not here to continue this analysis, as I’ve made my choice: AP-styled capitalization is my strong preference. No, I’m here to discuss how to remember the rules for this particular style choice.

The rules aren’t that hard to apply, and essentially boil down to the following:

  1. Capitalize any word that starts a title.
  2. Capitalize any word that ends a title.
  3. Capitalize any other word in the title as long as it’s not in this list:
    • a
    • an
    • and
    • at
    • but
    • by
    • for
    • in
    • nor
    • of
    • on
    • or
    • so
    • the
    • to
    • up
    • yet

Rules 1 and 2 are quite easy to remember. However, rule 3 is difficult because it’s easy to forget the list of exception words.

One can try to remember that the list includes all articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, or, yet), and prepositions three or less characters in length (at, by, for, in, of, off, on, to, up.) Honestly, working through the sets and elimination rules is cumbersome, especially if you haven’t had to apply them in a while.

So, I wrote a [clumsy] limerick to serve as a mnemonic device to help remember which words are NOT capitalized (exception words in the middle of a title) when writing AP-styled titles or headings. In this limerick, all words with three characters or less are the exception words. Some of the rhythms have to be finessed, but hey, there are 17 exception words to fit in, and we can’t all be Edward Lear.

Don’t Mess With a Mouse

So a mouse near an eagle and a snake,
Keeps in watch on the shore of a lake.
Yet at night, up to pounce,
But don’t judge by might or ounce,
For neither bird nor serpent would awake.

I’ve posted it here as a reference for me and my school-aged daughters (and, more recently, my daughters produced a brief video to tell the tale.) That doesn’t mean they like it (my eldest daughter hates the fact that the bird dies, although she’s OK with the snake perishing,) but, pragmatically speaking in terms of helping us remember AP-styled title capitalization, it works for us 🙂






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