This is something that occurs to me now and then: what are the conventions for writing a title, specifically a blog title, which will be most relevant for most of you reading this. It mainly occurs to me while I’m writing my own titles and thinking about whether I should capitalise a word or not.
The first thing to be aware of is that these are just guidelines. If you’re writing an academic work, then you have to respect the style guide of the institution where you’re studying. But for blog posts, there’s no body issuing guidelines, so you can do what you want. That being said, I find following the general rules for writing titles of essays, articles etc. works well for blog posts too. So let’s get into it.
The main thing to consider is which words to capitalise. Most people have a fairly good sense of this naturally, but the most common mistake is capitalising every word. The main issue with this is that it gives a sense that each word in the title is equally important. This is rarely the case, however. As in general language use, you have words which provide the bulk of the meaning of your sentences, which are known as content words. These are nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. In contrast, you have grammar words, which don’t really give you much information on their own, but instead serve to hold the sentence together. These include prepositions, conjunctions, articles, auxiliary verbs, and pronouns (for more on the distinction between grammar and content words, see here).
Generally, you capitalise content words, and keep grammar words in lowercase. Beware though, of some exceptions. First, you should capitalise pronouns (which I think are closer to being content words than grammar words anyway: not every word fits perfectly into the distinction). This isn’t something to worry about too much, as pronouns will usually come at the beginning of your title (and just in case it needs mentioning: capitalise your first word!). Auxiliary verbs (e.g. I have lived here for 5 years, I am going to the shop, Where do you live?) should also be capitalised. Again this isn’t much of an issue, as we usually contract them anyway, except for in questions.
The last exception is a bit trickier. You should capitalise subordinate conjunctions, but not co-ordinating conjunctions. A conjunction is a word that joins two clauses parts of a sentence together. A co-ordinating conjunction is the type most people think of when they think of a conjunction. It joins two equal clauses together, e.g. John and Mary live together. He bought a gift for her. A subordinate conjunction joins two unequal parts together (e.g. an independent and dependent clause). For example: He got some food because he was hungry; She went out, even though it was late. It can be tricky to know if a conjunction is a subordinate or co-ordinating one, but generally, co-ordinating conjunctions are shorter, because you don’t want them to draw attention away from the meaning of your sentence. Subordinate conjunctions are usually longer and draw more attention to themselves, to announce that you’re moving between clauses of different statuses. You can find lists of the two types here.
If all that sounds complicated, you’ll usually get by if you do the following: capitalise words of four letters or more. You’ll end up not capitalising some verbs and pronouns, but it’ll still look fairly ok, because content words are usually four-or-more letters long.
The general rules of punctuation still apply to titles. You’re not going to need many commas, as titles usually won’t be long enough to justify one. They also just don’t tend to look good in titles, though there are some times when you’ll need them. If your title is a quotation which contains a comma for example, or is a known expression with a comma, then keep it (and any other punctuation). Also, if you want to make it clear that your title is a quotation, particularly one coming from another person, use quotation marks). You’ll also need commas to separate items if your title is a list (the Oxford Comma is entirely optional). You also don’t need a full stop (or period, if you’re of an American inclination) at the end of your title. Remember that a full stop exists to separate sentences, but your title exists independently, so it’s not necessary. Unless your title happens to be more than one sentence, in which case I’d recommend considering if it’s too long.
Of course, if your title is a question, go ahead and put a question mark at the end. Equally, if you want to express surprise, or just get attention, throw in an exclamation mark.
The most important use of punctuation in a title is for a subtitle, or when you generally want to separate two parts of your title. The best way to do this is to use a colon, e.g. This Blog Post: the Best Post Ever? It’s also grammatically possible to use a semicolon or a dash. I’d avoid using a semicolon; it can look a bit messy in a title, and in most people’s heads they don’t really make the separation clear. Dashes work better, but colons have become the standard form for subtitles in most media, so they usually look best.
Or C): Ignore all of the Above
As I said, there are no official rules for blog-post titles, so feel free to do what you want (particularly if your blog features creative writing: rules be damned then!). However, you more than likely want to make reading as comfortable as possible for your reader, and in that case it’s probably best to stick to the conventions that we’ve developed through the various forms of writing we’ve been using for a long time. And most importantly, reread your title to check that it scans well for you. If it doesn’t sound natural in your head, it probably won’t in anyone else’s.