punctuation

Punctuation with Titles

By Jennifer Rappaport

In a previous Ask the MLA post, we explained how to incorporate titles ending in question marks or exclamation points into works-cited-list entries. But how do you incorporate such titles into your prose? How do you handle titles ending in other punctuation marks? And what should you do about other matters of punctuation related to titles?

Titles Ending in Question Marks or Exclamation Points in Your Prose

At the MLA, we never insert a period after a title ending in a question mark or exclamation point, but we insert a comma if doing so makes a sentence easier to read—for example, when such a title is one item in a series or when the title is contained in a nonrestrictive clause:

“I just saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Oklahoma!, and Design for Living,” Roland said.
The center hopes its 1992 theme, Explore New Worlds—Read!, will draw attention to geography.

But when possible, we prefer to reword:

The center hopes to draw attention to geography with its 1992 theme, Explore New Worlds—Read!

Titles That Need to Be Shortened 

When we need to shorten a really long title in a works-cited-list entry, we add an ellipsis after the first part of the title up to at least the first noun. If a work has an alternative title, we might include it. If a period is needed, we insert the period before the ellipsis and set the punctuation roman:

Bulwer, John. Philocophus; or, The Deafe and Dumbe Mans Friend. . . .     Humphrey Mosely, 1648.

If a comma is needed, as it would be when the long title is the title of a container, we insert it after the ellipsis. We set the ellipsis and the comma roman:

Smith, Ann. Introduction. Philocophus; or, The Deafe and Dumbe Mans Friend . . . , Humphrey Mosely, 1648, pp. x-xxi.

In prose, we omit the ellipsis:

Philocophus; or, The Deafe and Dumbe Mans Friend was written by John Bulwer.

Titles Ending in an Ellipsis or Dash

If the ellipsis is part of the title, we add the period or comma after the ellipsis. The ellipsis is set in italics if the title is italicized, but the additional punctuation is set roman:

One of the most popular comic films of the 1980s was Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally . . . .

One of the most popular comic films of the 1980s was When Harry Met Sally . . . , directed by Rob Reiner.

Work Cited

Reiner, Rob, director. When Harry Met Sally . . . . MGM, 1989.

We follow the same principle if a title ends in a dash:

A well-known poem about death is Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—.”

A well-known poem about death is “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—,” by Emily Dickinson.

Work Cited

Dickinson, Emily. “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—.” The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin, Harvard UP, 1999.

Titles and Subtitles

Section 1.2.1 of the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook says, “Use a colon and a space to separate a title from a subtitle, unless the title ends in a question mark or an exclamation point. Include other punctuation only if it is part of the title or subtitle.”

The handbook provides the following examples:

Storytelling and Mythmaking: Images from Film and Literature
Whose Music? A Sociology of Musical Language

But sometimes titles are not straightforward. In such cases, we follow some additional rules.

For example, when a title is followed by two subtitles, we use two colons:

Finis Coronat Opus: A Curious Reciprocity: Shelley’s “When the Lamp Is Shattered”

When a period separates a title and a subtitle on the title page, we change the period to a colon. When a question mark, exclamation point, or dash separates a title and a subtitle on the title page, we leave the original mark:

On the title page: The East End. The Story of a Neighborhood
In your prose: The East End: The Story of a Neighborhood
Both on the title page and in your prose: What Do I Know? An Account of an Investigation

But if a title contains a title ending in a question mark or exclamation point, we add a colon:

Moby-Dick and Absalom, Absalom!: Two American Masterpieces

Here the exclamation point is part of the title Absalom, Absalom!, so a colon is needed to separate the title Moby-Dick and Absalom, Absalom! from the subtitle.

Double Titles

For an alternative or double title in English beginning with or, we follow the first example given in section 8.165 of The Chicago Manual of Style and punctuate as follows:

England’s Monitor; or, The History of the Separation (452)

But no semicolon is needed for a title in English that ends with a question mark or exclamation point:

“Getting Calliope through Graduate School? Can Chomsky Help? or, The Role of Linguistics in Graduate Education in Foreign Languages”

For double titles of foreign language publications, we follow the source.

Dates in Titles

Unless a date is part of a title’s syntax, we follow section 8.163 of Chicago and set it off with a comma:

Melodrama Unveiled: American Theater and Culture, 1800–1850 (451)

Serial Comma in Titles

Contrary to section 8.163 of Chicago, for English-language titles of books published in the United States, we add the serial comma before the conjunction preceding the final item in a series if the comma is missing. Otherwise, we follow the source. The following book was published by Verso in London, so the serial comma is not added:

Buelens, Geert. Everything to Nothing: The Poetry of the Great War, Revolution and the Transformation of Europe. Verso, 2015.

Works Cited

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

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

Published 29 December 2017

56 comments on “Punctuation with Titles”

  1. Dear Jennifer, I have a question regarding the use of semi-colons in the subtitle of report headlines. Specifically, I’d like to know whether or not the first word after the semi-colon should be capitalized. I know that the first word after the subtitle typically begins with a capital letter as per Chicago and AP rules, but the AP is silent on what to do when the subtitle is itself separated by a semi-colon. Is the below headline acceptable?

    Hurricanes 2017: Galeforce winds batter UK; Flood warnings issued nationwide

    • Great question. MLA style, following Chicago, capitalizes the first letter of the first and last words of a title and the first letter of any other words in the title unless they are articles or prepositions, so in your example, we would capitalize not only “Flood” but also all the other words in the title: “Hurricanes 2017: Galeforce Winds Batter UK; Flood Warnings Issued Nationwide.” (Note that “galeforce” is not in Webster’s so if we were crafting this title we would style it “Gale-Force Winds,” but if it were a published title, we would follow copy.)

  2. What would you do if the title with a question mark was in quotes, rather than italicized? Would the comma go inside or outside the quotation mark? “…?,” Or “…?”,