A Capital Offense

Upstyle/downstyle rules make my head hurt. I’d love to explain them to you, especially in a somewhat coherent manner, but even I get confused.

Upstyle is the traditional way of capitalizing most words (sans articles and prepositions) in a title; downstyle means to cap only the first word and proper nouns.

The problem is that the Associated Press doesn’t quite want to define what constitutes a title, so instead they’ve established different rules for “composition titles” (upstyle) and “headlines” (downstyle).

So what’s the problem? The muddled way in which AP answers questions about it in its “Ask the Editor” column.

For example (bold is mine):

Q: Subheads follow AP headline style, capitalizing only the first word and proper nouns, correct? If so, are they punctuated (unlike the main headline), ending in a period? – from Key Largo, Florida on Mon, Jan 07, 2008

A: Headlines on AP wire stories capitalize the first word and proper nouns. Subheads — which are rare — would follow the same style. Headlines for AP stories online use both “up” and “down” style. In “up” style, virtually all words are capitalized. In “down” style, the first word and proper nouns are capitalized. Headlines are punctuated as needed. Commas, semicolons, apostrophes and single-quotes for quotation marks are frequent, but no periods at the end.

Let me parse this out. “Headlines for AP stories online use both up and down style” means that anything goes. This is a rather odd decision from an organization that attempts to set rules.

Here’s another one:

Q: If AP style for headings is to capitalize only the first word and proper nouns, then why are the headings on the home page of www.apstylebook.com handled differently? “John Doe’s Stylebook and Notes,” “Popular Topics,” “Ask the Editor,” “Site Settings and Account Management” are all capitalized in what I consider to be the more traditional, academic style. Please clarify, as our web team – from Seattle, WA on Thu, Apr 12, 2007

A: The style you refer to is primarily for headlines in newspaper copy. There’s more leeway with shorter “headers” such as you describe.

Interpretation: AP does have an inner monologue guiding the use of upstyle and downstyle. Unfortunately, their only clue to this monologue is that the header has to be “shorter.” Shorter than what exactly?

And one more:

Q: We are trying to decide how to handle capitalization of headings on our school district Web site. You state that, “AP style for headlines (and subheads) is to capitalize only the first word and proper nouns.” However, on your home page, the headings “Search,” “Linda Robertson’s Stylebook and Notes,” “Popular Topics,” “Ask the Editor,” and “Site Settings and Account Management” are all – from Redmond, WA on Fri, Jul 20, 2007

A: The headline style applies to the text format for AP news stories. Web site headlines and labels have other typographical requirements.

And just what are these other typographical requirements? That’s hard to say, since Ask the Editor answers are almost always briefer than a tweet.

Wait! I have to include this one, since I’m the one who asked it:

Q: An initial-capped subhead in a paper reads, “What Will it Mean in the End?” Given AP capitalization rules about principal words, shouldn’t words essential to the thought in the head (like “it”) also be capitalized? – from Dallas, TX on Fri, Jul 13, 2007

A: AP capitalizes only the first word and proper nouns of a headline. Others are of course free to follow their own style on headlines.

So here’s their deal. You can use upstyle or downstyle for headlines, especially if the headline is shorter, falls into an “other typographical requirements” category, or if you just feel like doing whatever you like.

Strangely enough, if I’ve promised a client that I will edit according to AP style, doing whatever I like doesn’t quite feel right, especially with something as prominent as the header.

So here’s what I do. I downstyle most headlines, depending on what it is. If it’s a brochure, downstyle. If it’s a white paper and clearly a “composition,” I’ll think about keeping it upstyle, since that is almost always how it will come in.

Whichever style I use, I match the subheadings to the headlines for consistency.

I downstyle labels in graphics and tables, unless I am not actually making the changes. If a designer is executing my proofreading marks and a table is particularly text-heavy and upstyle, the risk of introducing more errors — certainly errors of consistency — is too great a risk.

Yet all of this leaves me unsettled. I suggest that AP abandon the idea of downstyle completely; it’s not what most people learned growing up, and these bizarre “if .. then” rules are quite difficult to follow. Upstyle FTW!