Are there definitive rules on how to punctuate a book title?
Yes, there are broadly accepted rules for book and chapter titles. They are very similar to properly punctuating titles in shorter works such as for poems, short stories, songs and musical albums.
You can check a variety of references such as the Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Style Guide, The Oxford Style Guide and many others.
There could be small differences between American, British, Australian or Canadian English language style.
But the basic rules for punctuating book titles are quite standard across all forms of English.
General punctuation rules for book titles
1. Always capitalize the first word and the last word of the title.
2. Always capitalize the important and significant words such as verbs, nouns and adjectives.
3. Always capitalize subordinate conjunctions like as or because.
4. Always capitalize a word after a colon.
5. Never capitalize articles, a, an and the unless it is the first word of the title.
6. Never capitalize coordinating conjunctions such as but, and, or, if or nor.
7. Never capitalize short prepositions of less than 5 letters like at, to, from, in, out or over.
8. Always capitalize a phrasal verb particle such as give out, go away, push on, give in or get over.
9. No commas and period (full stop), but hyphens and question marks are commonly used.
If you are referencing a title, the book title punctuation rules above are fine and it would be a rare occasion that you could go wrong.
It is recommended that you do not place italics or quotation marks around the titles if they are book titles. But if you are referencing parts of a book, such as book chapters, or only part of the title, then use quotation marks.
Tip! Beware of using Title Case in Microsoft Word, as it will capitalize every single word in a title.
Related reading: How To Pick A Book Title To Help Your Book Discovery Online
Apply the rules for book titles
Or, can you be creative with your new book title?
You can do both, but you first need to remember that your title will be used in two places in your book. It will be on your book cover, of course, but also on the title page of your book.
For your cover, you can be very creative. But for your title page, it should use correct capitalizing and punctuating.
Very often, every word in the title is a noun, verb or adjective, so there is not a lot to do or worry about. However, capitalizing prepositions will cause the most confusion. Especially with phrasal verbs particles.
If the title is I Wish I Could Move On Quickly, the word, on, is capitalized because move on is a phrasal verb.
But if it is When We Went on Holiday, on would not be capitalized.
Related reading: Choosing Fonts And Colours For Your Book Cover Design
On your book cover
Punctuation rules count for very little. But great typography counts for a lot.
Yes, you should follow the rules. But look at the two cover versions below of one of my favourite books, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Obviously, there was a change of punctuating heart about prepositions as the years passed by.
There was also a need for a hyphen because Hitchhikers didn’t fit in full on the original cover.
But is easy to stop worrying about using a capital letter for only the first letter if you use all caps, and use a freaky font.
When it comes to rule-breaking about when you capitalize titles, one would think that an ex-president would be the last person to be a big rule breaker.
But Barrack Obama broke the very first golden rule with this cover title.
Mixing lower case with upper case, and no capital on the first word is just not in the rulebook.
But you would have to say that it works very well.
Another way to throw out the rulebook is to not bother with doing anything. Just use lower case for everything.
But look closely. What’s with adding a hyphen?
Lowercase is one word or can be two separate words depending on your dictionary, so it doesn’t need a hyphen. But it gets one anyway on this book cover.
But why not add an ampersand in place of and? I’ll let you judge if the ampersand is capitalized or not.
Or, why not add a hyphen when there is absolutely no logical reason whatsoever to add one. For me, it’s Moby Dick, not Moby-Dick.
But if you really want to avoid problems and tough decisions, go for a very short one-word title as Stephen King did with IT.
But should every letter be capitalized?
Probably, but I think in the middle version below, the cover designer was undecided on that score.
If you are studying and writing an essay or review, or if you need to add a reference in a bibliography, always follow the nine basic rules.
But if you are an author and you are researching a new book title, then you have a lot of choices.
I would advise sticking to the rules for the title page of your book. But for your book cover, you or your cover designer can go wild and let your imagination do the talking.
You can italicize the title or only part of it.
Why not use AlTeRnAtInG case? There is no reason why you can’t, except that it is very hard to read.
Or you could try having an ǝlʇıʇ uʍopǝpısdn on your cover. Now that could create some real interest. It could also result in readers having to twist their necks to read it.
Accidentally breaking a rule can look silly, as in This Is my New Book title.
But intentionally breaking the rules as in, THIS is my new book TITLE might work well for you.
When you are making the decision about your new book title, short is normally the best choice. However, in today’s book marketing world, keywords and SEO play a big role in online book discovery.
But SEO and your title can work happily together if you focus on using only nouns, verbs and adjectives.
It is always said that if you want to break the rules, you need to learn them first.
This is good advice for book titles and how you intend to punctuate them.
More reading: You Can Use The Em Dash And Cheat At Your Punctuation