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To capitalise or not to capitalise? That is the question

Making a call on using sentence case vs title case often results in case of overthinking.

On the surface, the choice seems straightforward. Australian style guides lean towards minimal capitalisation. In practice, style rules don’t always match individual or organisational preference.

For many, capitalising words conveys a level of formality and respect that clashes with their desire to follow style guidance.

So, with the aim of side-stepping opinion, this article looks at the reasons behind capitalisation guidelines.

Hopefully, it will help you clarify your decisions about when to use sentence case and title case and how to apply this consistently in your communication.

The difference between sentence case and title case

Title case

Also known as maximal capitalisation, title case is a style where the key words in a title are capitalised.

Typically, this includes the first word and all major words, including nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. Smaller words like conjunctions, articles and prepositions within the sentence are not usually capitalised.

Title case example: ‘The Funniest Aussie Cat Videos of 2024’

Sentence case

Sentence case capitalises only the first letter of the first word of a sentence or heading. It also allows capping of proper nouns, which are the specific names of people, places and things.

Sentence case example: ‘The funniest Aussie cat videos of 2024’

A note on all caps

Capitalising whole words is popular for navigation menus on websites and for headings in marketing and advertising contexts. Sometimes it is used for design impact in swathes of body text. As a general rule, avoid using all caps. Here are a few reasons why.

  • It can slow readability by 13–20%.
  • It feels ‘shouty’ to the reader.
  • it changes the shape of words into blocky rectangles, making words more difficult to process.

When considering using all caps, only use it for single words or short phrases.

A brief history of title case and sentence case

OK, stay with me.

I wanted to look at the history because title case makes little sense. If capitalised letters are intended to mark the start of a sentence and any names or significant words within it, it seems unhelpful to the reader to cap all the words.

A hand holds a feather quill over parchment. Also on the table is a wooden chalice with wooden Rosary beads and two scrolls of paper.

Written language began as all caps. One explanation for the formation of what we now call lower case is that Christian scribes tasked with manually copying the Bible developed it as a kind of shorthand. They used the larger, fancier letters at the tops of pages or to highlight an important name. They made the job quicker with smaller, curvier letters everywhere else. Their efficiency stuck.

The arrival of the printing press saw these two letter types cast in metal and stored in separate boxes, or cases. Letters in the top – or upper – case were for important words. Beneath them in the lower case were the smaller letters for the majority of the text.

So, the purpose of capital letters was to make things stand out.

Where and how to use them then became a matter of readability versus emphasis.

A case for confusion

Over time, and with the development of style guides, title case became more common for formal contexts like essay titles, academic papers and published works. It has also long been the standard for headings in the United States.

But it also became popular for zealous marketers wanting to grab attention and organisations keen to assign special significance to all manner of things.

The Australian Government Style Manual calls for minimal punctuation. This includes using sentence case for:

  • headings
  • opening quoted speech within a sentence
  • film and book titles
  • positions or roles within an organisation.

Many organisations use the Australian Government Style Manual as the foundation for their in-house style guides. Yet their communication is full of Board Meetings, Strategic Plans, Annual Reports, Hubs, Clients and Community Relations Officers.

There’s a reluctance to remove these unnecessary caps; as though doing so will reduce their importance or convey disrespect.

Title case has its role. But let’s look at why the guidance leans toward sentence case.

Readability and user experience

The choice between title case and sentence case is not only about looks; it also affects readability and user experience (UX).

Studies into sentence case vs title case and readability suggest that using sentence case can be less cognitively demanding, particularly for people with processing differences such as dyslexia or those experiencing stress.

Sentence case in headlines, subheadings and buttons can make content easier to scan. This is because it guides the reader’s eye through the content more easily.

Minimal punctuation, which includes sentence case, is also easier for screen reader technology to navigate.

Another thing to consider is that capitalisation can mean different things in different languages. So, if you have multilingual readers, inconsistent use of capitalisation can create confusion.

Overall, sentence case supports content accessibility. And, as always, what’s good for accessibility is good for everyone.

With competition for reader attention growing by the day, anything that helps your audience get the information they need more easily is the way to go.

When to use title case in Australian communication

According to Australian style manuals, title case is best used selectively and in specific contexts.

Title case is particularly important in legal documents, where case names are often presented in title case. This practice ensures clear and precise references.

It’s also used when referring to legislation and Acts of Parliament, where capitalised and italicised letters, together with the bracketed year, ensure readers understand the specific Act being discussed.

Shortened forms and title case

When names of things are long, style conventions state writing it in full in the first instance with the shortened form in brackets. From that point on, the shortened form is used throughout the piece.

Usually, the shortened form is written in all caps to denote the first letter of each word being shortened.

While it is correct to use caps for the shortened form, the original full name does not need it. Some examples include:

  • acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)
  • obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The exception is where the shortened form stands in for a proper name, such as:

  • Australian Capital Territory (ACT)
  • Higher Education Loan Program (HELP)
  • National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Should you capitalise your title?

Much uncertainty about when to use title case arises from people’s roles and job titles.

The general style guidance in Australia is to use title case when an official title comes before the office holder’s name.

Example: CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Doug Hilton AO.

General references to job titles and roles should be in lower case.

Example: That parking space belongs to the chief executive officer.

Honours and forms of address

Style conventions exist for using capitals for titles, honours and forms of address. The Australian Government Style Manual explains the specific capitalisation rules for:

Avoid using capitals in body text

Apart from proper nouns and where style conventions require it, avoid using capitals in body text for a particular position or role within an organisation.

According to the Australian Government Style Manual, ‘This practice goes against readability and does not support clarity.’

Capitalising First Nations terms

When writing about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, take your guidance where possible from the relevant First Nations community.

According to Reconciliation Australia’s educational resource, Narragunnawali, the following should always be capitalised:

  • Aboriginal
  • Torres Strait Islander
  • Indigenous
  • First Peoples/Nations
  • Elders
  • Traditional Owners/Custodians
  • Country, Land, Sea and Sky when referring to an area associated with a distinct group of people or First Nations community
  • Language groups or geo-cultural communities
  • Acknowledgement of Country, Welcome to Country, and the names of other cultural practices.

There’s no need to capitalise ‘reconciliation’ unless naming Reconciliation Australia or referring to a formal program or document, like your Reconciliation Action Plan.

Check out the Australian Government Style Manual for more detail about using culturally appropriate and respectful language when writing about First Nations people.

What if your organisation insists on title case?

So you’ve explained Australian style conventions, readability and accessibility factors, but your organisation still opts for title case. More mental gymnastics for you.

A person bangs their head against a keyboard. Text across the top of gif read, ‘not this again’.

Here’s what to do.

  1. Decide when and where title case is acceptable within your organisation.
  2. Make these guidelines clear in your in-house style sheet.
  3. Do not use house style outside the organisation.

Whatever you choose, consistency is essential. Inconsistent capitalisation can confuse readers and make your communication look unprofessional.

While I follow the Australian Government Style Manual, it’s not the only one out there. Sticking with a specific style guide not only improves readability but also consistency and, by extension, the credibility of your written content.

Find out more about creating a comprehensive, inclusive language in-house style guide.

The case for consistency

Let’s face it. Your choice around capitalisation is not life or death.

Will your title case heading stand out better in your brochure? Maybe.

Will the sentence case headings on your website be easier to read? Probably.

Yes, style conventions exist for a reason and it makes sense to follow them. But the choice comes down to:

  • context
  • purpose
  • audience
  • desired tone.

And the key to it all is consistency.

By understanding the pros and cons of sentence case vs title case and applying your choice consistently, you will deliver your message clearly and professionally. After all, that’s the ultimate goal of communication.