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What Are the Different Ways to Punctuate Titles?

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  • Written By: Lori Spencer
  • Edited By: S. Pike
  • Images By: Lefteris Papaulakis, Egypix, Phylg
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2016
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When in doubt about how a title should be punctuated, most professional writers and editors turn to a style manual. In the world of journalism, editors typically use the Associated Press Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style or the Modern Language Association's (MLA) Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. There is no absolute standard on how to punctuate titles, however. Styles may vary by industry — for example, Western medical texts conform to the American Medical Association's Manual of Style — and most publishers have their own in-house style guide for writers to follow. The waters can be muddied even further when a style guide written for one country may conflict with rules of grammar in other countries.

For the majority of scholarly and academic works, MLA style is preferred. To punctuate titles according to the MLA guidelines, the standard rule is that "big things" are italicized and "little things" are put in quotation marks. Big things are works that stand alone, like a book or album of musical compositions. Little things are part of a larger work — such as song titles or individual pages within a website. This "big and little" rule can be applied to solving most titling punctuation puzzles.

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An example of this would be the song "With a Little Help From My Friends" from the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Using the "big and little" rule, the correct way to punctuate this would be by putting the song title in quotation marks and the album title in italics. The title of a collected edition of poems should be italicized; individual poems within the volume would appear in quotation marks. An exception to this rule is an epic poem such as Homer's The Odyssey, because it is long enough to be published on its own as a book. Religious texts such as the Bible, the Koran, and the Torah are generally capitalized but not punctuated with italics or quotations.

Individual works of art are nearly always italicized. Examples of this might be Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper or Michelangelo's David. Photographs, on the other hand, are considered smaller than a work of art and therefore appear in quotation marks. A book that is a collection of photographs would be italicized, while the individual photograph titles would not. The same applies to individual short stories within a larger volume. For example: "The Gifts of the Magi" from The Complete Works of O. Henry.

Italics must be used to punctuate titles of books, plays, films, sculptures, statues, paintings and other works of art. Names of magazines, newspapers, and websites should also appear in italics, but the titles of articles published within would appear in quotation marks. To properly punctuate titles of TV series or serials, the name of the series would be italicized and each individual episode's title should be printed inside quotation marks. A skit or commercial title would appear in quotation marks, not italics. The proper names of planes, trains, spacecraft, and ships are always italicized, such as RMS Titanic.

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