Capitalisation in B2B science writing: When to use title case, sentence case and all-caps
The way you capitalise your titles is not often given much consideration in B2B marketing copy. But given how important titles are in attracting attention to your content, I’d argue that it’s worth spending a moment to make sure you’re not annoying your audience with distracting usage. So read on for my thoughts on the relative merits of title case and sentence case, and when it’s appropriate to use all-caps.
Why bother about capitalisation?
How to use capital letters in the titles of your marketing literature might seem a geeky topic that’s not worth dwelling on, but a quick Google search will show you that there are a large group of people who think otherwise.
Much of this enthusiasm comes from the adherence to certain prescriptive journalistic ‘style guides’ – which it has to be said I’m not particularly keen on. Don’t get me wrong though – I’m a strong advocate for using a well-defined style guide for a company’s literature, because consistency tells the reader that you care about doing a good job. But as for what individual style rules should be, I prefer to start with the content, and define the rules according to what will work best for the people reading it.
This ‘pragmatic’ approach is how I look at capitalisation. From my perspective as a writer, titles are usually the entry point into our content, so it must therefore be worth devoting some effort into how they’re presented.
So I’ve scoured the scientific B2B literature for examples of title case, sentence case and all-caps in action, and come to some conclusions about how well they work. I hope you find them useful for helping to achieve best-practice in your own literature.
QUICK REMINDER: THE OPTIONS FOR TITLE CAPITALISATION
Title Case is standard practice in the US, especially amongst journalists, who follow rules in style guides produced by (for example) the Associated Press. This involves capitalising the principal words such as nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, but not capitalising many short words. Rules vary, but in general, the latter include articles (a, an, the…), coordinating conjunctions (and, or, but…), and short prepositions (in, on, for, up…).
Sentence case just involves capitalising the first word of a title and then leaving the rest lower-case (apart from proper names). This is commonplace in Europe, although in German nouns are always capitalised anyway.
ALL-CAPS scarcely needs an introduction. Of little use in body copy except for inflammatory social-media posts, it nevertheless has a useful role in headers and other short pieces of text.
(By the way, did you know you can toggle the capital letters in a sentence by highlighting the text and using SHIFT-F3? It saves a lot of tedious rekeying.)
#1: Title case looks better for short, formal headlines
Let’s start with what title case is good for – short pieces of text, especially formally-written headlines in news releases:
It’s also fine for titles of blog posts, white papers and reports. Advocates of this usage point out that it brings emphasis to the text, and provides a ‘balanced’ look across the title:
It is also widely used for company straplines, website menu options, and where two categories or options need to be given equal billing:
But when the text covers things that are of minor significance, title case starts to look a little odd, because it seems to be ascribing importance to something that doesn’t warrant it:
A decision is therefore needed – do you apply it to all titles in your literature, or just those in certain places? If the latter, then where do you draw the line and switch to sentence case?
#2: Sentence case is easier to use
This brings me on to my second point, which is the ease of using sentence case – there’s not much you can get wrong! In contrast, the rules around using title case are fairly complicated, and unless you had them drilled into you at school or on a journalism course, they’re far from easy.
To take the headline below, why is ‘our’ capitalised but the longer word ‘with’ not? In this example, ‘our’ is neither a preposition nor an article, so it should be capitalised, whereas ‘with’ is a preposition, so is not capitalised, at least in the Associated Press stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style. However, it would be capitalised in the style guides used by the American Psychological Association and the Modern Language Association, because it is four letters or longer. Phew!
The time taken to understand such complexities is a reasonable argument for sticking with sentence case. But if you’re obliged to use title case, you may find tools like this online title case converter useful.
#3: Sentence case avoids overuse of capitals in science-focused copy
Initial capitals are conventionally used for proper nouns, such as the names of organisations, people, products or apps. But if we use title case, then this distinction is lost, and we have to rely on the reader working this out from the context.
Most of the time this is fine, but the large number of capitalised terms in science (abbreviations and acronyms, named methods, Linnean binomials…) can make the text look very capital-heavy. This results in a less pleasant (‘choppy’) reading experience, as in the example below:
#4: Sentence case sounds more friendly
As you may see from the examples above, title case gives a rather formal, uncompromising look to the text. Together with its wide use in newspaper headlines and news releases, this gives it a corporate tone: it says “listen up, we’re telling you something”.
In contrast, the use of sentence-case makes your titles look more like regular sentences. So it strikes a softer, more approachable tone that is in keeping with many brands:
#5: All-caps is useful for short titles
Finally, let’s talk about all-caps. It’s well-established that large blocks of all-caps are difficult to read, so you shouldn’t be using it for whole paragraphs.
But it has a well-earned place for short pieces of text used in website menus, straplines, subtitles, and calls to action:
You can get away with using it for article titles too, but to be honest they get a bit difficult to read once they’re longer than this:
However, one problem with all-caps that it eliminates the distinctiveness of abbreviations and acronyms. Also, unless your product names are also all-caps, it means that you end up being inconsistent, as demonstrated by the trademarked product name below:
Summary: Sentence case is a good all-rounder
In conclusion, I find that sentence case is easy to apply, works well 99% of the time, and helps give the copy an ‘approachable’ feel. It also accommodates the occasional use of initial capitals where a bit more emphasis is needed – for example, following lead-ins (as in the header for this subsection).
Title case requires more care, and can cause scientific copy to look caps-heavy, so in my view is not such a good choice. However, it might still work well if:
- Your company has a formal, corporate brand image
- Your markets are largely US-focused
- Your titles and headers don’t generally use many scientific abbreviations.
Like other formatting options – such as font size, bold, italics, underline and colour – capital letters are simply a way of drawing attention to a piece of text. Used sparingly and with good reason, they help the reader to assess the importance of your words, and so ultimately make it easier to comprehend.
Therefore, by using a capitalisation style that reflects your content and readership, and that allows a bit of flexibility, you can maximise the chance that your content does what it needs to, as effectively as possible.