Content Corner: Capitalization, Compounds and Commas
There’s an adage in the restaurant industry: If the bathroom is messy, just imagine what it’s like in the places you can’t see. A lack of attention to detail implies that there may be more serious problems elsewhere, and that applies to content too. So, when we consistently get the small things right, it can have a big impact.
There are three mistakes I see often in published thought leadership from a variety of outlets. Let’s call them the Three C’s: capitalization, compounds and commas. By paying closer attention to these three common errors, we can earn readers’ confidence and prevent them from worrying about what the back of house may look like.
5 Ways to Tell if You Are Capitalizing Correctly
Quirky capitalization grinds my gears. Some writers used to capitalize plain old nouns. (Looking at you, William Blake.) For titles, many people aren’t completely clear on what to capitalize.
I often see “is” and “are” not capitalized in titles. Those are short words, but they’re verbs, so capitalize them in title case just like all other verbs. You can use helpful tools like this one if you’re not sure how to apply title case.
Some style guides differ slightly on capitalization. That tool linked above can help you, but here are a few capitalization tips based on our friend AP style:
- Overall, when using title case in titles/subject lines/subheaders, you should capitalize almost all words, including short verbs (Is, Are, Be etc.).
- Always capitalize the first and last words of a title.
- Use lowercase for articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (and, but, or, so, if, etc.) and prepositions (in, out, to, at, etc.) of three letters or fewer.
- In AP style, prepositions and conjunctions of four or more letters should be capitalized — otherwise it looks odd in the title (With, From, Above, Without, Between, Beyond, While, Since, Though, etc.). Other style guides differ on this point, but words with five or more letters are usually capitalized.
- Keep an eye out for prepositions used adverbially or as part of a verb phrase, such as “to.” It doesn’t get capitalized as a preposition, but it does get capitalized when it’s part of a verb (e.g., “5 Things To Do if Facing XYZ”).
Numbers zero to nine get spelled out in the body text, but you should use numerals in headlines (see above: “5 Ways…).
What Happens When Compound Nouns Become Verbs?
Did you know that most such compounds are one word as a noun or adjective but two words as a verb?
Note that some one-word compounds are “closed” (one word with no space) while others are hyphenated. The preferred usage depends on the word, so feel free to Google it or check Merriam-Webster. In either case, the verb form uses two words.
Below are a few common examples. Check the space and make sure to use the right word.
- Did you break down the budget breakdown by quarter?
- You will stand out by being a standout performer.
- Log in using the login information.
- Sign up on the sign-up sheet.
- We can check in during our weekly check-in.
- They may carve out that business unit for a carve-out transaction.
Common Comma Quandaries: (Non)Restrictive Clauses
Sometimes you need a comma. Sometimes you don’t. How do ya know? For restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, it’s pretty simple: Determine whether the clause provides essential info or bonus info.
- Restrictive=essential info=no comma.
- Nonrestrictive=nonessential info=comma.
Use this test: If you take out a restrictive clause, it changes the meaning of the sentence because that info is essential. If you remove a nonrestrictive clause, the meaning of the sentence remains the same.
- Restrictive | no comma: The editor who we worked with last time accepted the pitch.
- That clause helps identify who we’re referring to. It wouldn’t be clear to just say, “The editor accepted the pitch.”
- Nonrestrictive | comma: The editor at XYZ, who hates the word “utilize,” accepted the pitch.
- That clause is bonus info and could be removed.
Small Things Can Make a Big Impact
You don’t want to spend all the time and effort to gather the best ingredients, refine a delicious recipe and train the team on processes just to get undone by a messy bathroom. So, the next time you’re pondering title case for capitalization or commas with restrictive clauses, remember that cleanliness goes a long way.
By Sean Hojnacki
Photo by Jessica Lewis via Pexels