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Chapter 3: Capitalization and Italicization

Rules on capitalization and italicization are in one sense straightforward: after all, a word is either capitalized or not and either italicized or not. But since each publisher has a slightly different set of conventions for these typographical features, the MHRA has to set out its preferences and ask authors to follow its choices. It is hoped that the following chapter clears up most common issues encountered. In the case of capitalization in particular, your software’s automatic spellchecker may prove misleading, and it is always worth checking its suggestions against the rules set out here.

§3.1. When to Capitalize

Capitals must be used for the initial letters of sentences and for the names of places, persons, nationalities, the days of the week, and months (but not for the seasons of the year). They are also to be used for the titles of laws, plans (such as the Marshall Plan), wars, treaties, legal cases, and for specific institutions and other organizations (the Modern Humanities Research Association, the Poetry Book Club). Capitals are used also for unique events and periods (the Flood, the Iron Age, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, World War II, the Last Judgement) and for parts of books when referred to specifically (Chapter 9, Appendix A, Figure 8, Part 11).

Names of the points of the compass are capitalized only when abbreviated (N.) or when they indicate a specific area (the North [of England], South America) or a political concept (the West, the Global South). The corresponding adjectives are capitalized when they are part of an official name (Northern Ireland) or when they refer to political concepts rather than merely to geographical areas (Western Europe) but not otherwise (northern England).

‘Middle’ is capitalized in such fixed expressions as Middle East(ern), Middle Ages, Middle English.

Words used to describe cultural or ethnic groups, for example, Black, Native American, Latina, Jewish, and Lutheran, are generally capitalized. White is not normally capitalized, but there may be contexts where this is appropriate for consistency.

Adjectives deriving from proper nouns are in many cases not capitalized (but see §3.3):

Alps, alpine; Bible, biblical; Satan, satanic (but Satanic with reference to Satan himself)

Dictionaries and style guides vary in their use of capitals or lower case for adjectives, verbs, and nouns deriving from names of peoples or languages. MHRA practice is to use capitals in such cases:

Francophile, Gallicism, Italianist, Latinate

Whereas MHRA does not use capitals for:

anglicize, anglophone, francophone, romanization

MHRA writes ‘arabic numerals’ and ‘roman type’ in lower case, but ‘the Arabic language’ and ‘the Roman alphabet’ with a capital.

§3.2. Capitalizing Personal Titles and Positions

Capitals are used for titles and positions when these appear in full or immediately preceding a personal name, or when they are used specifically, but not otherwise:

  • The Archbishop of Canterbury and several other bishops were present, but Bishop Treweek was not.
  • The Prime Minister met with several ministers, including the Minister for Health.

When, after a first full reference, or with such reference understood, a title is used incompletely but still with specific application to an individual, the capital is retained:

  • The Archbishop spoke first.

A word or phrase used as a substitute for, or an extension of, a personal name also takes initial capitals:

  • the Iron Duke
  • Alfred the Great
  • the Dark Lady of the Sonnets

§3.3. Capitalizing Movements and Periods

Capitals must be used for nouns and adjectives denoting cultural, philosophical, literary, critical, and artistic movements and periods when these are derived from proper nouns:

Beauvoirian, Cartesian, Chomskyan, Christian, Confucian, Freudian, Platonism

Capitals should also be used for movements whose names are relatively rarely discussed (Vorticism, Symbolism, Futurist) or which might be open to misinterpretation if written without capitals (Decadence, Romantic, Realist). For example:

  • a poet of the Romantic school
  • a novel with a straightforwardly romantic plot

Lower case may be used for movements whose names have entered the language (modernist, nihilist, surrealist, communism). A degree of common sense is required; for instance, if discussing a number of movements alongside one another, it may be preferable to treat them all the same way. In all cases, make sure your usage is consistent.

Capitals should similarly be used for words such as Conservative, Democrat(ic), Independent, Liberal, National(ist), Republican, or Social(ist) where they occur in the names of political parties or affiliations, but not where they are used less specifically:

  • the Independent Labour Party
  • the Liberal Democrats
  • standing as an Independent
  • a person of conservative views
  • an economic liberal

For movements and periods with the prefix ‘neo’ and other compounds, see §3.5.

§3.4. Capitalizing Titles of Works

In most modern European languages except English and French, and in Latin and transliterated Slavonic languages, capitalization in the titles of books, series, articles, essays, poems, films, plays, etc. follows the rules of capitalization in normal prose. That is, the first word and all proper nouns (in German all nouns) take an initial capital, and all other words take a lower-case initial:

  • La vida es sueño
  • El alcalde de Zalamea
  • Il seme sotto la neve
  • De senectute
  • Autorenlexikon der deutschen Gegenwartsliteratur
  • ‘Salazar: o homem e a sua obra’
  • Atlante dei canzonieri in volare del Quattrocento

In English titles, the initial letters of the first word and of all nouns, pronouns (except the relative ‘that’), adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions are capitalized, but those of articles, possessive determiners (‘my’, etc.), prepositions, and the co-ordinating conjunctions ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘or’, and ‘nor’ are not:

  • books:
    • Put Out More Flags
    • How Far Can You Go?
    • The Man Who Was Thursday
    • All’s Well that Ends Well
    • Pride and Prejudice
    • A Voyage towards the South Pole
  • series:
    • A Social History of the Welsh Language
  • poems:
    • The Faerie Queene
    • ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’

If a poem has no title, the first line may be used to identify it. In this case, capitalization follows the author’s choices:

  • ‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame’
  • ‘“next to of course god america i”’

In early modern studies it is common practice to follow the capitalization of the original title page, but care should be taken when copying the title of an early printed book from a database, as the database may transcribe a title that was in full capitals on the title page into all lower case. Consult the original title page for correct capitalization, where possible. If this does not resolve the issue, standardize to modern capitalization rather than leaving the title in lower case.

English works with foreign titles are normally capitalized according to the English convention rather than that of the language of the title:

  • Religio Medici
  • ‘Portrait d’une Femme’
  • ‘La Figlia che Piange’

In French titles it is normally only the initial letters of the first word and of proper nouns that are capitalized. But if the first word is a definite article, the following noun and any preceding adjectives also take an initial capital:

  • Le Médecin malgré lui
  • Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune
  • Un début dans la vie
  • Une ténébreuse affaire
  • Du latin aux langues romanes
  • Nouveau cours de grammaire
  • Histoire de la littérature française
  • A la recherche du temps perdu
  • ‘Edmond de Goncourt et les Naturalistes belges dans les années 1880’

However, for reasons of symmetry, capitals are sometimes used elsewhere:

  • ‘Le Corbeau et le Renard’
  • Le Rouge et le Noir

Titles consisting of a complete sentence (and that begin with a definite article) do not take additional capitals:

  • Les dieux ont soif
  • La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu

Where a work has a subtitle, the use of capitals or lower case for the first word after the colon varies between languages.

In English and in German, the first word of a subtitle following a colon is capitalized:

  • A ‘New’ Woman in Verga and Pirandello: From Page to Stage
  • Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement
  • ‘Exil in der Literatur: Zwischen Metapher und Realität’

Note that MHRA style separates a title from a subtitle with a colon, in preference to the full stop that is the norm in some other languages.

In English, where or introduces an alternative title after a semi-colon, it is set in lower case, while any article that follows it is capitalized:

  • All for Love; or, The World Well Lost
  • Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

In other languages, lower case is used for the first word after a colon:

  • ‘Uma edição fac-similada d’Os Lusíadas, 1572: o caso das páginas trocadas’
  • ‘Un canzoniere adespoto di Mariotto Davanzati: metrica e filologia attributiva’
  • Rubén Darío: cosmopolita arraigado
  • ‘Monstruosité de l’héroine: réécriture de Médée dans Chanson douce de Leïla Slimani’
  • ‘Zhyvi mertsi: shche kil′ka notatok pro smert′ ukraïns′koï literatury’

Beyond the first word after the colon, subtitles are capitalized in the same way as titles, in all languages.

Capitalization in the titles of newspapers and journals is inconsistent. In particular, in Romance languages, initials of some or all nouns and adjectives are sometimes capitalized, e.g.:

Le Bien Public, Il Corriere della Sera, Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace, El País, La Repubblica, Revue de Linguistique Romane

The safest procedure is to adopt the preferred style of each publication.

§3.5. Compounds

Capitals should be retained after the prefix in hyphenated compound forms such as:

neo-Aristotelian, non-Christian, post-Darwinian, post-Impressionism, pre-Columbian

Both parts of the compound are capitalized in ‘Pre-Raphaelite’.

The following unhyphenated forms, uncapitalized or capitalized as shown, are preferred:

neoclassical, neocolonial, neorealism, neoscholastic, Neoplatonism, Nonconformism, Presocratic

Archaeologists and historians, when referring to prehistoric eras, usually write them as one word, capitalized when a noun but not when an adjective:

before the Neolithic, neolithic sites

In titles and headings, all parts of the compound are normally capitalized:

  • Anglo-Jewish Studies
  • Non-Christian Communities
  • Seventeenth-Century Music
  • Post-Classical Literature

However, only the prefix is capitalized if both parts are essentially one word in hyphenated compounds formed with re-:

  • Democracy Re-established

§3.6. Accents on Capitals

Accents should be retained on capitals in languages other than English, e.g.:

le Moyen Âge, Éire, el Éufrates, Émile Zola, Ólafsson

However, the French preposition à may drop the accent when capitalized (A bientôt!).

§3.7. Italicizing Words

(a) English words

Avoid the use of italics for rhetorical emphasis. Any word or phrase individually discussed should, however, be in italics, and any interpretation of it in single quotation marks:

He glosses pale as ‘fenced land, park’.

It may also be desirable to use italics to distinguish one word or phrase from another, as, for example, in ‘23 April not 23rd April’.

(b) Foreign words

Single words or short phrases in foreign languages (e.g. fin de siècle) not used as direct quotations should be in italics. Direct, acknowledged, or more substantial quotations should be in roman type. (For quotation style, see §2.12.)

Names of institutions, buildings, towns, or regions should not be italicized, but names of movements or other abstractions should be. For example, Bibliothèque nationale de France, but aménagement du territoire.

Foreign words and phrases which have passed into regular English usage should not be italicized, though the decision between italic and roman type may sometimes be a fine one. In doubtful instances it is usually best to use roman. The following are examples of words which are no longer italicized:

a literary salon, ad hoc, avant-garde, denouement, dilettante, ennui, feng shui, leitmotif, milieu, par excellence, résumé, schadenfreude

Certain Latin words and abbreviations which are in common English usage are also no longer italicized. For example:

cf., e.g., etc., ibid., i.e., passim, viz.

Exceptions are made of the Latin sic, frequently used within quotations (see §2.8) and therefore conveniently differentiated by the use of italic, and of circa (abbreviated as c., see §5.1).

See also §7.12 on the use of ‘ibid.’ and similar abbreviations.

§3.8. Italicizing Titles of Works

(a) Books and other writings

Italics are used for the titles of all works individually published under their own titles: books, journals, plays, longer poems, pamphlets, and any other entire published work.

  • Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi
  • T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
  • Marx’s and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto

However, titles such as ‘the Bible’, ‘the Koran’, and ‘the Talmud’ are printed in roman, as are titles of books of the Bible (see below). Titles of series are not italicized, e.g. ‘Studies in Hispanic and Lusophone Cultures’. The titles of chapters in books or of articles in books or journals should be in roman type enclosed within single quotation marks. The titles of poems, short stories, or essays which form part of a larger volume or other whole, or the first lines of poems used as titles, should also be given in roman type in single quotation marks:

  • Théophile Gautier’s ‘L’Art’
  • Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’
  • Shelley’s ‘Music, when soft voices die’
  • Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’
  • Bacon’s ‘Of Superstition’
  • Hughes’s ‘Harlem’

The titles of collections of manuscripts should be given in roman type without quotation marks (see §7.7). The titles of unpublished theses should be given in roman type in single quotation marks (see §7.10).

Titles of other works which appear within an italicized title should be printed in italics and enclosed within single quotation marks:

  • An Approach to ‘Hamlet’

In the citation of legal cases the names of the contending parties and ‘v.’ for ‘versus’ are given in italics:

  • Bardell v. Pickwick
  • Roe v. Wade

(b) Films, music, and works of art

Titles of films, substantial musical compositions, and works of art are italicized:

  • The Great Dictator
  • Il trovatore
  • Elijah
  • Swan Lake
  • Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony
  • Tapiola
  • Die schöne Müllerin
  • Goyescas
  • The Hay Wain
  • The Laughing Cavalier
  • Hambling’s Scallop
  • A Love Supreme
  • Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours

Descriptive or numerical titles such as the following, however, take neither italics (except in a reference to a publication or recording: see §7.8) nor quotation marks:

  • Beethoven’s Third Symphony
  • Bach’s Mass in B minor
  • Mendelssohn’s Andante and Scherzo
  • Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor

Titles of songs and other short individual pieces (like those of poems) are given in roman and within single quotation marks:

  • ‘Who is Sylvia?’
  • ‘La Marseillaise’
  • ‘Mercury, the Winged Messenger’ from Holst’s The Planets
  • ‘I Am the Walrus’ from the album Magical Mystery Tour

(c) Exhibitions

Titles of exhibitions should be given in roman type and in single quotation marks:

  • ‘Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist’
  • ‘Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life’

(d) Italics in translated titles

If it is helpful to your reader to translate the foreign-language title of a work, place the English version in brackets after the original.

There may be instances where it is useful to distinguish between the title under which a work was published, broadcast, or distributed abroad (which should be italicized as for the original) and your literal translation of a work that has either not been translated or has been published under a different name in translation. In this case, give the title in roman type:

  • L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend)
  • L’Aigle à deux têtes (The Eagle with Two Heads)
  • Engrenages (Spiral) is credited with launching the career of [...]
  • Engrenages (Gears) set out to show the inner mechanics of the judicial system. Broadcast in the UK as Spiral, it [...]

The publication you are writing for may require round or square brackets as standard for translations: here we have used round. See §2.8.

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