Sentence-Case Versus Title-Case for Topic-Based Authoring
By Rob Hanna.
The issue of whether to use sentence-case or title-case for topic and section titles can be nearly as controversial and personal for us as the Oxford comma. Most of the commercially-available style-guides are split on the issue as to when to use title-case and even how to use title-case. The APA style-guide has gone so far as to split the issue down the middle, calling for title-case for level-1 and -2 headings and sentence case for level-3 headings and below. Apple and Google both take different approaches to title-case in their content and in their user interfaces.
We take a strong position on authoring titles using sentence-case for all topics, blocks, and labels.
If none of these thought-leaders can agree on a standard approach, why should we care? At Precision Content, we take a strong position on authoring titles using sentence-case for all topics, blocks, and labels. All map titles use title-case. Our position on sentence-case is based on five main points, namely that sentence-case
- is easier to write
- is easier to read
- is easier to translate
- allows for greater reuse opportunities, and
- provides optimal flexibility for publishing.
Easier to write
Writing titles in title-case requires the writer to capitalize the first letter of every important word. This should not be as subjective as it sounds except that the major style-guides cannot agree on what is important enough to capitalize. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends lower case for all prepositions regardless of length, whereas AP Style recommends capitalizing all words of four letters or more. The Chicago Manual of Style goes so far as to making exceptions for prepositions used adverbially or adjectivally; for example, Back Up Your Server.
Editorial corrections needed to ensure consistency seem extraneous, in our opinion. Editors are likely to encounter more titles working with DITA topics than with more book-based publications. If authors simply use sentence-case for titles, this additional effort goes away.
Easier to read
The main reason for using title-case in the first place is to provide added emphasis to a heading. For short titles, title-case adds some pleasing symmetry to the presentation of the text. Separating content from presentation is the primary motivation for moving away from traditional formats to XML-based publishing. There are other more effective options for adding emphasis to the presentation.
Longer Titles that are Written Using Title-Case are far More Difficult to Read than Sentence-Case
Lower-case words are easier for the human brain to read than capitalized words. This is because we recognize words, not just for the letters that comprise the words, but for the shape of the words themselves. This phenomenon is known as the Bouma shape. Most words we learn are lower-case and most easily remembered by their specific shape. Consider the shape of Iphone versus iPhone. One looks completely foreign and almost incomprehensible because we’ve only ever seen the one shape of the word.
The most important aspect of usability for both human- and machine-readability is the ease with which we can distinguish proper nouns in titles written in sentence-case. When we use proper nouns in title-case, this meta information is lost to the reader.
The most important aspect of usability for both human- and machine-readability is the ease with which we can distinguish proper nouns in titles written in sentence-case.
For a semantic search engine, this weakness is compounded by its inability to make inferences as to what is a proper noun. This is an important aspect to consider for future-proofing your content.
Easier to translate
The use of title-case for headings is far more prevalent in the United States than elsewhere in the world. Publishing content in other English-speaking countries could require rewriting headings to conform with local practices. The hardest aspect for translation is the identification of proper nouns. Rules for capitalizing headings in other languages vary considerably but few use title-case for headings.
Well-written titles form one of the most important roles in effective topic-based authoring.
Greatest reuse potential
Well-written titles form one of the most important roles in effective topic-based authoring. They are the most heavily reused elements in XML-based structured authoring. They are reused in
- tables of contents
- taxonomies, and
- presentation of search results.
DITA/XML uses a mechanism called progressive disclosure that relies on titles and short descriptions for more flexible reuse of topics across publications.
How titles are used in structured authoring
Titles in XML topics form an important trinity in information management. Titles are always and simultaneously
- Titles as content
Titles should convey information to the reader such that the reader is informed about the subject of the block of content without reading the block of content. Task topic titles are one of the most illustrative forms of titles as content. The rules for titling task topics specify that the title should form a command that describes the steps used to execute the command, for example, Back up your server. When these task topics are ordered together, the titles form a series of steps that the reader will use to execute the higher-order task; for example, Install the replacement server, for which backing up the server is a task within the larger task.
Titles as navigation
Titles form scannable sign-posts in our content that allows our readers to quickly jump to the information they are looking for. When a title is written in title-case, the reader is expecting that the title is a sign-post and nothing else. They do not see it as content on its own.
When a reader is scanning content to find information, they search for keywords in headings to narrow the scanning. When words are capitalized in a title, each of the capitalized words is seen as a keyword to facilitate scanning. The reader is less likely to see the title in its entirety and drop down to the text below to start reading for the information they are seeking. When all words are capitalized and not just proper nouns, the reader has a harder time picking out keywords for the scan.
Titles as metadata
Titles form crucial parts of metadata for content in a large system. The title should act as a meaningful label on the content that can be used in any number of different ways by the system. As we start to see intelligent systems consume content and even mash up components of content, the need for flexible titles becomes more important to enable chatbot experiences and similar presentations of information.
Best flexibility for publishing
What do we do when our clients’ different style-guides and even locales around the world differ on how to write for title-case? What if we wrote all content in sentence-case and published the content in title-case according to the needs for our audience?
Our developers here at Precision Content have produced XSL-T stylesheets to convert sentence-case to title-case that slip into the pre-processing stream to give our customers the content the way they want it. This is only possible because we first authored the titles in sentence-case. We cannot take title-case and automatically convert it to sentence-case as we will not be able to identify the proper nouns in the title.
I admit to having a strong bias on this subject. I’ve searched for relevant research that will back my stance or provide a good counter argument and come up empty. Any arguments I’ve found in favor of title-case headings appear to be based on aesthetics and traditions.
It would seem to me that, while the costs may not be justified to convert a lot of legacy content to simply change the titling to sentence-case, it would make sense to take this into consideration on a rewrite or go-forward basis. If you are at a point now where you are creating a new standard for titling in your organization, consider how your decision may have broad implications across the organization once a standard has been established.
It can be difficult to reverse a decision like this. Unless of course, if you’ve authored the titles in sentence-case and used stylesheets to turn them into title-case, then you can change direction anytime at the flick of a switch.
Rob Hanna is an award-winning technical writer and content strategist. In 2017, he was named one of the 2017 TOP25 Content Experience Influencers by an expert judging panel sponsored by Mind Touch. In 2013, Rob was awarded the rank of Fellow in the Society for Technical Communication. He is co-founder and president of Precision Content in Mississauga, Canada.