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

68 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 “…?”,

      • Where would the commas go if I listed multiple titles that had quotation marks? Ex. I read “Riding the Rails,” “The Long Road to Oregon,” and “Coming out West.” Is that correct with the commas and period inside the quotation marks?

        • Yes, correct. Please see our related post for examples:

  3. When the title of the work being cited in the WC list includes the title of another text (for example, the cited work is titled A Critical Edition of John Lydgate’s _Life of Our Lady_, with the last four words in the title — here set apart with underscores — being the title of a long poem and thus italicized), should the secondary / interior title be italicized along with the main title, or should it be formatted in standard typeface in contrast with the main title’s italics?

  4. Can’t find an answer for citing a title within a title when it comes at the end. This is for a citation:
    “An Overview of ‘A Rose for Emily’.”
    “An Overview of ‘A Rose for Emily.'”

  5. I have an issue with a document on line that I want to call attention to. This document has several sections or parts and each section or part has a name/header/sort of title. I need to mention the name/header/title of each section in this document. Should I put the names/headers/titles of each section in quotations or italics? How should I punctuate this? Also, to do certain things with this document, you have to navigate through it, for example: click “Save and finish later” or click “Next”. Should these “Click” buttons be in quotation marks or italics as well?
    Thank you for your help.

  6. When citing an article title that contains periods, should the periods be omitted? For example: In the article “That’s No Woman. That’s My Wife.,” the author states…

    That’s No Woman. That’s My Wife. is the title, but the punctuation doesn’t look correct. Thank you!

  7. Jennifer, thanks for this wonderful and useful piece. One issue I’m still confused about is how to handle the mid-sentence appearance of titles containing a single comma. (Some examples: Lust, Caution; White Hunter, Black Heart; New York, New York.

    To consider the last example, I know that I would write a non-title version of the phrase as follows:

    • I took a trip to New York, New York, and had a wonderful time.

    But is this the correct way to place the title in the middle of a sentence?

    • We watched the Scorsese film New York, New York and really enjoyed it.

    Is no comma required at the end of the title to “close out” the comma in the middle?

    • Thanks for your question. Whereas a comma is needed before and after the state in formulations such as “New York, New York,” when the city and state are used as the title of a work, no comma is needed following the name of the state, unless the grammar of the rest of the sentence requires it (After watching the movie New York, New York, we went out to dinner).

  8. Is it common to place an additional comma between the year and time in a subtitle?
    i.e. meeting announcement
    August 21, 2018, 1:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. (EST)

  9. How would you punctuate this sermon title:
    “Building Wisely,” Part 1
    Should Part 1 be written as part of the title? italicized? in parentheses?
    Should Part 1 be left off and only Part 2 and Part 3 written?

  10. The author of this book has put colons after the chapter numbers followed by the chapter title. Three chapters are each about one of three “Power Blockers.” How to punctuate those? Which of two styles is preferable? Use a second colon or not?

    Chapter 6: Power Blocker #3 Misplaced Blame


    Chapter 6: Power Blocker #3: Misplaced Blame

  11. There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how to style chapter numbers before titles, but in a table of contents, I would recommend the following in the example you’ve sent:

    Chapter 6. Power Blocker #3: Misplaced Blame

  12. My question concerns the title of an academic publication.

    In my situation, the title concludes with a question and the subtitle gives further clarification.

    How can I distinguish the title from the subtitle?

    For example:

    Competition Law within the European Union is Functioning Just Fine, but do fines cut it?:
    An exploration of the efficacy of corporate fines in achieving the goals of EU Competition Law, and the potential benefits of reform.


    Competition Law within the European Union is Functioning Just Fine, but do fines cut it?
    An exploration of the efficacy of corporate fines in achieving the goals of EU Competition Law, and the potential benefits of reform.

    I look forward to having this one resolved.


    • Thanks for your question. The question mark separates the title from the subtitle.

      Competition Law within the European Union Is Functioning Just Fine, but Do Fines Cut It? An Exploration of the Efficacy of Corporate Fines in Achieving the Goals of EU Competition Law, and the Potential Benefits of Reform.

  13. Hi there,
    We are trying to figure out how to punctuate a role title. For example,

    You are invited to be an Organization Lead at xyz company.

    Should ‘Organization Lead’ have quotation marks like “Organization Lead” or single quotations or none at all?

    And if a course title, do I add ‘xx’ or “xx” as well in a phrase? For example, Access “Digital Marketing” today.

    Thank you for your help!

    • Thanks for your question. In MLA style, quotation marks are not used around professional titles or titles of courses. We also lowercase professional titles: organization lead.

  14. When using a short story title within a paper’s title, and before a subtitle, where does the colon belong?

    “A Rose for Emily:” Northern Progress Meets Southern Tradition
    “A Rose for Emily”: Northern Progress Meets Southern Tradition

    Thanks for your help!

    • The colon goes after the title in quotation marks:

      “A Rose for Emily”: Northern Progress Meets Southern Tradition

  15. Thank you so much for your help Jennifer, but what if the title is an analysis of a book. For example, about animals in Harry Potter?

    Can I write:

    Anthropomorphisation and Animal representation: A post humanistic analysis of Harry Potter.

    Is this the right format for MLA?

    Thank you

    • Thanks for your question. The correct styling in MLA format would be

      Anthropomorphization and Animal Representation: A Posthumanistic Analysis of the Harry Potter Books (since Harry Potter is the name of a series of books, not the name of a particular book).

  16. For the following, does the period go inside the quotation marks or outside? It is a title of a paper.

    For questions 3-10, refer to “The Beetle Juice”. Or For questions 3-10, refer to “The Beetle Juice.”


  17. While I understand how to punctuate a question, I’m a bit confuse as to the proper rule regarding titles that do not indicate it’s a question but rather an answer.

    For example, there are plenty of “how to” posts that do not have any punctation in the title.

    How to prepare for a snowstorm


    How do I prepare for a snowstorm?

    I would think the proper way is …

    How to prepare for a snowstorm. (with a period)

    But I’m finding several major newspapers and magazines do not punctuate these titles with a period. It seems to me it creates a conflict with citing sources using proper punctuations. Can you clarify how MLA handles this?

  18. Does one need a period after a title ending with a question mark when the title is the end of the sentence? For example:
    We were analyzing the short story “Who’s Afraid of the Storm?”
    I think that’s enough punctuation, but should there be a period after the quotes? With a non-question mark title, the period for the end of the sentence would go inside the quotes.

    • A question mark is indeed enough punctuation in your example. There should be no period after the closing quotation mark.

  19. Hi there. I have a question about listing book titles that have commas in their titles. For example, I want to list four book titles in a single sentence, but two of the books have commas in the titles. How do I write out the list so as to be clear about which commas are part of the titles and which are separating items in a list? Do I use semicolons? It doesn’t look right. As of now the only thing distinguishing the commas in the titles from the commas used as list separators is that the former are italicized and the latter are not. I just worry this isn’t clear enough when the font is small.

    • Great question, Carly. You have it exactly right: the commas between the titles are not italicized, so those commas separate one title from another.

  20. In my academic field, I often see titles that include some made-up system name, a colon, and a short description of the system. Something like: “Gizmo: a great new way to do things”.
    Is there a name or term for the first word in this title, the system name? It’s clearly not the subtitle or the title, but is there anything else I can call it?

  21. Hi,
    I’m wondering what to do when a question inside quotation marks is the first half of a title (i.e. followed by a subtitle). I see that it says here, “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.” However, does that still hold true when the title is in quotation marks? In that case might the colon be added back (since technically the quotation mark would make for a barrier between the question mark and the colon so they wouldn’t be directly in a row)? Or still no? For example:
    “A Man for All Seasons?” Reflections on John Wayne
    “A Man for All Seasons?”: Reflections on John Wayne

  22. I need advice on how to use commas in a title of a piece I’ve written for an American publication.
    The title is:
    From Brass Pins Pistols and Swords to Warships.

    How are the commas to be placed in this title ?
    David Burt, England.

  23. Hi!
    I’m an artist (a painter) and sometimes I have two names, or titles, for my paintings. How to write it correctly? Usually I just place it in quotation, for example: “The painting one”, or “The painting two”.
    I’m originally from Russia, and we have these punctuation rules (with comma before ‘or’ with double titles), but I doubt it is correct in English. Please, help.

    • Thanks for your question. We also have rules in English for punctuating double titles. See the section “Double Titles” above.

  24. Hello, I have a question. What if there is a book with a title that has the article “The” in it. When you write it on a document or something, would you put the article after the full title, and separate the article and end of the title with a comma? for example, “Maze of Bones, The”?

    • Thanks for your question. In prose and works-cited-lists, the article should remain at the start of the title, but in an index, it would likely be listed as Maze of Bones, The.

  25. I have a list of newspaper article titles that are being analyzed by some high school students; naturally, one of the article titles ends with a question mark. What is MLA’s rule on this?

    Here’s the opening to his précis:

    In his 2019 articles “Sea Level Rise Could Claim Mar-a-Lago — and Trump’s empire,” “U.S. Women’s Soccer Players Shouldn’t be Paid as Much as Men. They Should Get More.,” and “What Can a Black Person do to Keep from Getting Killed by Police in this Country?” American columnist Eugene Robinson unabashedly addresses various controversial topics, ranging from the everyday lunch conversation starter, climate change, to the heated, yet popular political campaign platforms of gender and racial discrimination in order to . . .

    • Thanks for your question. We would insert a comma between the question mark and the closing quotation mark because it makes the sentence easier to read.

  26. Is it correct if I were to have my title with a colon and a question mark? If so, do I add a space between?

    • Thanks for your question. A colon and a question mark should not generally appear next to each other in a title. So, for instance, if a title ends in a question mark and the title is followed by a subtitle, do not add a colon between the title and the subtitle. See the example above: Whose Music? A Sociology of Musical Language.

  27. Thanks but 1.2.4 does not address my question. Yes, a book title within a journal article title should be italicized. But if the book title is NOT italicized in the actual journal article, do I make that correction in my works cited page?

    • Thanks for the clarification. If the book title is not italicized in the journal article, do not italicize it. Copy the article title as it appears in the source.

  28. I want to title a play with a long title and need your thoughts on both my chosen punctuation and capitalization and thank you. Here is my title: An Angel with Flowers, Broadway Bound in Twenty-Seventeen, B.C. [Before COVID-19]

    • Thanks for your question. You might consider An Angel with Flowers: Broadway-Bound in 2017 BC (before COVID-19)

  29. Should university course titles be punctuated if they are mentioned in a letter?

    For example: “I look Introduction to Film last spring, and it helped me understand movies.”

    Thank you for such a helpful forum!

    • Thanks for your question. In MLA style, course titles are set roman without quotation marks, so your example is correct.

    • Thanks for your question. Names of restaurants and theaters should be styled roman without quotation marks.

  30. Good Day Jennifer, is it a grammer law that you Must put a question mark at the end of your title if the title is a question…I”m just trying to find out the Pros and Con”s and the benefits of using the question mark in this type title.

    • Thanks for your comment. It’s probably a good idea to include a question mark if you are creating a title that is a question.

  31. Hello,
    For the title of a paper I’m writing:

    A Comparison of Water Supply in Houston, TX and Baltimore, MD

    Do I put a comma after TX, as I would insert within the body of the paper?
    (Same question would apply if I spelled out the state names)

    Thank you!

  32. Hello, Jennifer A. Rappaport. As a high school junior enrolled in a college class, I want to, well, I want to show off to my classmates. I mustn’t have errors! After some reading online, I have received mixed answers on whether or not I can put a period at the end of a précis title for emphasis. Could you help me?

    With many thank yous,
    Madeline A. Patrick

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