Why does the MLA capitalize certain words in titles?

Note: This post relates to content in the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook. For up-to-date guidance, see the ninth edition of the MLA Handbook.

MLA style’s rules for capitalization are intended to help authors remain consistent while also respecting the ways in which titles have traditionally been styled in different languages.

The history of capitalization in titles is complicated, though titles of printed works from earlier eras written in English generally conform to a currently recognizable style. For instance, the title of the 1605 edition of Hamlet appears on its title page as THE Tragicall Historie of HAMLET, Prince of Denmarke. The spelling and capitalization differ slightly from those of a modern edition, but the title reflects some distinctions that survive into the present day. “Of” is lowercase, while adjectives, nouns, and the first word of the title are all uppercase. 

In MLA style, titles of English-language works are capitalized headline-style, and titles of works in languages other than English are capitalized sentence-style. This distinction is somewhat arbitrary but accords with other usage guides. The Chicago Manual of Style follows the same principles and explains that headline style mandates capitalizing all words except prepositions and the common coordinating conjunctions, whereas sentence style mandates capitalizing the title as one would a normal sentence (8.158–59). The MLA Handbook also explains what to capitalize in titles and when to do so (1.2.1, 1.2.5). Partly, these distinctions are a matter of convention and are intended to respect the ways in which various languages have evolved. In titles capitalized sentence style, for instance, words are capitalized if they are capitalized in the foreign language. For example, in German all nouns are capitalized, but not all nouns are capitalized in French, so this difference is reflected in which words are capitalized in German and French titles. 

Using headline style for English titles and sentence style for titles in languages other than English helps maintain consistency and provides a simple and concise guideline for styling titles. 

Works Cited

The Chicago Manual of Style. 17th ed., U of Chicago P, 2017.

MLA Handbook. 8th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2016.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke. London, 1605. Early English Books Online, gateway.proquest.com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:image:12949.