Capitalization in titles and headings

There are three main options for capitalizing chapter and section headings within your dissertation: capitalizing all significant words, capitalizing only the first word, and a combination of the two.

The three heading capitalization styles

First, you can capitalize every significant word.

Option 1: All significant words capitalized
Chapter 3 Literature Review
Section 3.1 History of Coffee Drinking
Section 3.2 Emerging Coffee Markets in North America
Section 3.2.1 High School and College Students
Section 3.2.2 Commuting Workers
Section 3.3 Competitors in the Hot Beverage Sector

The list of what is considered significant is quite long; it generally includes all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs.

You may find it easier to instead focus on what usually isn’t considered significant (and thus not capitalized, unless it happens to be the first word in a heading): articles (a, an, the), prepositions (examples: by, for, in), conjunctions (examples: and, or, because).

Option 2: Only first words capitalized
Chapter 3 Literature review
Section 3.1 A history of coffee drinking
Section 3.2 Emerging coffee markets in North America
Section 3.2.1 High school and college students
Section 3.2.2 Commuting workers
Section 3.3 Competitors in the hot beverage sector

Finally, the third possibility is to use a combination of the other two options. For instance, you could use option 1 for the chapter headings and option 2 for lower level headings.

Option 3: Capitalization varies by level
Chapter 3 Literature Review (level 1)
Section 3.1 A history of coffee drinking (level 2)
Section 3.2 Emerging coffee markets in North America
Section 3.2.1 High school and college students (level 3)
Section 3.2.2 Commuting workers
Section 3.3 Competitors in the hot beverage sector

Capitalize proper nouns (names) no matter what

Formal names of people, organizations, and places are capitalized no matter what style you use. For instance, North America is capitalized throughout the above examples.

In this regard, note that specific models, theories, and schools of thoughts are not considered proper nouns. The only component that needs to be capitalized is the scholar’s name, when relevant.

  • Porter’s Five Forces Model
  • Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
  • the Realist school
  • Porter’s five forces model
  • Einstein’s theory of relativity
  • the realist school

Which option should you choose? If you are following the APA style, the rules are clear. Essentially, you should capitalize all significant words in level 1 and 2 headings and only the first word starting from level 3. MLA also has specific requirements for formatting headings.

If you are free to decide, we recommend option 1 or 2. Why? One reason is that it’s easier, you just won’t have to make so many judgment calls about what to capitalize. A second is that using a lot of capital letters may make the text difficult to follow, especially in longer headings.

Here's why students love Scribbr's proofreading services

Discover proofreading & editing

Consistency, consistency, consistency

Whatever option you choose, the most important thing is to use effective headings that are capitalized consistently throughout your entire document. This applies not only to the main chapters of your dissertation, but also to any supporting materials that come before and after (including the abstract, table of contents, lists of tables/figures, acknowledgements, reference list, and appendixes).

To make sure that no inconsistencies have snuck through, take a very careful look at your table of contents. Seeing all of the headings together will make any anomalies very apparent. This is especially true if you have used Microsoft Word to automatically generate this list.

Also take care that other aspects of your dissertation layout and formatting are consistent in relation to headings.

Is this article helpful?
Sarah Vinz

Sarah's academic background includes a Master of Arts in English, a Master of International Affairs degree, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She loves the challenge of finding the perfect formulation or wording and derives much satisfaction from helping students take their academic writing up a notch.

Your paper without awkward language mistakes?

Scribbr's professional editors can help!
Learn more
Trustpilot score of 4.9