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.

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.

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Consistency, consistency, consistency

Whatever option you choose, the most important thing is to capitalize headings 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.

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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.

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Liessi Haussler
December 22, 2016 at 11:46 PM

Your statement, "If you are free to decide, we recommend option 1 ..." very obviously contradicts the reasons supporting the advice. It appears you instead intended to recommend option 2 or 3, in which case the rationale is perfectly clear. My client is holding up your article as an argument for old-school capitalization, which spawns further arguments about which words should be capitalized and makes for a very noisy table of contents where any proper nouns (e.g., names of reports, companies, products, applications, software features, other documents) and acronyms are completely buried.

As a technical writer, my primary objective is to make information accessible to the reader as quickly as possible. A reader should be able to scan the table of contents in a panic and immediately turn to the one topic that interests them. It is not a list of topics to be contemplated in patience or relished for its exquisite detail. Removing unnecessary capitalization from section headings is but one of many devices I employ to streamline information but I find it sets the tone for the entire document.

Occasionally, I run into clients who insist on applying the grammar school rule of title capitalization (which certainly applies to the title of a document) to each and every numbered topic, so when I’m shown your article in support of their argument, I bristle to think it might contain an unintended error. I look forward to your thoughts on this.


Bas Swaen
Bas Swaen (Scribbr-team)
January 4, 2017 at 3:06 PM

Dear Liessi, it was indeed a mistake. It should have said: "If you are free to decide, we recommend option 1 or 2.". I will update the article! Thank you for pointing this out to us.


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