Not Entitled

By Jennifer Rappaport

In our editing, we often note that writers misuse titles in three key ways. Read on to learn more and then take our quiz.

Using a Title in Place of Its Subject

Few writers have difficulty distinguishing the subject of a work from its title when the subject and the title are different:

He is the author of Liberty or Death, a new history of the French revolution.

Ben Jonson’s “Song to Celia” is a love poem addressed to a woman.

Catch-22 is a satirical novel about World War II.

But when writers discuss a work whose title is similar to its subject, they sometimes mistakenly use the title of the work in place of the subject, which The Chicago Manual of Style (sec. 8.172) notes is a fault:

He is the author of a new History of the French Revolution.

To correct the problem, the writer can either change the title to a subject or revise the sentence so that the title is used as a title:

He is the author of a new history of the French Revolution.

He is the author of a new book, History of the French Revolution.

Below are additional examples:

Incorrect

William Wordsworth dedicates his poem “To the Memory of Raisley Calvert.”

Correct

William Wordsworth dedicates his poem to the memory of Raisley Calvert.

William Wordsworth wrote “To the Memory of Raisley Calvert” about a childhood friend.

Incorrect

Tolstoy’s novel, about War and Peace, chronicles the French invasion of Russia in 1812.

Correct

Tolstoy’s novel about war and peace chronicles the French invasion of Russia in 1812.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy chronicles the French invasion of Russia in 1812.

Incorrect

The professor delivered a lecture on “Changes in the Curriculum in Postwar American Universities.”

Correct

The professor delivered a lecture on changes in the curriculum in postwar American universities.

The professor delivered a lecture, “Changes in the Curriculum in Postwar American Universities.”

Referring to an Element of the Title As Though It Is Part of the Writer’s Discourse

A related problem occurs when writers refer to an element of a title as though it is part of their discourse:

The critic writes of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring that “her lips are parted as if she is about to speak.”

In the example above, her cannot refer back to Girl since Girl is an element of the title.

Here are two possible ways to revise:

The critic writes of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring that “the girl parts her lips as if she is about to speak.”

The girl with a pearl earring in Vermeer’s famous painting “parts her lips as if she is about to speak,” according to one critic.

Treating Singular Titles as Plural Words

Yet another problem arises when writers treat a title, which is a singular whole, as a plural generic word:

Montaigne’s Essays were published in the sixteenth century.

But the title is singular, so it is correct to write the following:

Montaigne’s Essays was published in the sixteenth century.

Work Cited

The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed., U of Chicago P, 2016.

Published 15 March 2018

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