A Brief History Of Website Headline Style

With little fanfare, TechCrunch has changed the way it covers the world of technology.

I’m talking, of course, about its headline style.

See that? With a snap of editorial director Henry Pickavet’s fingers (or so I imagine), the site transitioned from title case to sentence case late Monday evening.

I asked TechCrunch editor-in-chief Matthew Panzarino why he made the change, and here’s what he told me:

TechCrunch at its best is a conversation between its writers and its readers. These conversations often happen in real time as stories evolve and allow us to invite people in and to elevate the discussions that need to be had about the powerful emerging technologies that are changing our world. More colloquial headline composition that allows us to be clearer and less beholden to awkward acrobatics of phrasing is a part of staying true to that. Besides, startup names are getting so ludicrous that it’s getting difficult to differentiate some of those headlines from Pythonesque wordplay, no matter how hard we try.
We’re still debating exactly how much capitalization to do away with. Frankly there is a holdout sect inside TechCrunch editorial that just can’t seem to let go of this obsession with the beginnings of sentences and proper nouns. But I think with the proper amount of coercion I can get them to come around to my “no caps at all” position. Odwalla deprivation is a strong motivator.

It’s a big deal, considering the volume of archives the site has generated since Michael Arrington’s first post nearly 11 years ago. Google counts 392,000 pages on techcrunch.com. Those archived stories will awkwardly coexist along Panzarino’s newly conversational headlines.

TechCrunch isn’t alone here. Business Insider also made the switch 13 months ago, as I noticed at the time.

We Sentence You To Title Case

For the uninitiated among you—though I can’t imagine many people outside the secret society of copy editors reading this post—sentence-case headlines are capitalized like an ordinary sentence: Only the first word and words that are normally capitalized are uppercased. The Associated Press rolls this way, as do most newspapers aside from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post switched to sentence case in 2009.

Title-case headlines are harder to define. Think “title” as in “book title”: If you roam through the stacks in a library, you’ll find the words in titles almost universally start with an uppercase letter. The Chicago Manual of Style (Go Maroons!) and the Modern Language Association are the leading proponents of title case. Magazines tend to prefer title case. (A notable exception is The Economist, which has always thought of itself as a newspaper anyway.)

The problem with title case is that it’s confusing to operate under, as TechCrunch’s Panzarino notes. Some publications lowercase articles, conjunctions, and prepositions, while uppercasing so-called “major” words—nouns, verbs, adverbs, prepositions.

This leads to a lot of novice errors by writers, who wrongly conclude that because “to” and “and” are lowercased, small words like “is” are also lowercased. Wrong! “Is” is a form of the verb “to be,” and verbs are capitalized.

If you see a publication whose official style is to lowercase “is” in title-case headlines, please fire everyone there. They are bad people and should be mocked in the public square.

I wince as I look back at the Suck.com archives, where I worked for a glorious if brief period as a copy editor. There, we used some bastardized form of title case, with no rhyme or reason. “The” was lowercased, “a” was uppercased, and prepositions seemed to depend on Ana Marie Cox’s ginger-haired whims. I can only plead being a poorly paid underling.

Another way to handle title case is to simply capitalize everything. This goes against Chicago and MLA style, but it has a great advantage in the fast-paced world of online publishing: There are no rules to remember except that you capitalize every word. BuzzFeed is an example of a site that operates like this.

Sadly, AP, Chicago, and the MLA are all silent on whether or not to capitalize emoji.

Pop A Cap In The Quad-Frap Headline

There’s no consistency about headline style online, no grand consensus. Even within budding media empires like Vox Media, there’s no consistency. It often comes down to the style that a site’s founders grew up under—newspapers or magazines. Vox’s homegrown sites—SB Nation, The Verge, and Vox.com—use sentence case. Recent acquisitions like Eater and Recode use title case.

If there’s a general trend towards sentence case, Gawker Media, where I worked as managing editor of Valleywag from 2007 to 2009, is a counterexample. Within that network of sites, there’s been a slow move to standardize on title case. Valleywag, io9, and Lifehacker all started out with sentence-case headlines. When Valleywag folded into Gawker and io9, much more recently, folded into Gizmodo, they appear to have switched to title case. Lifehacker made the switch at some point in mid-2007, as best I can tell.

Gawker Media founder Nick Denton prefers sentence case for his personal posts—and he even implored his staff in 2013 to consider a switch. Gawker Media still runs on title case, which shows you how much actual control Denton has over his editors.

If you’re starting a publication and setting style, here’s my recommendation: Either go with the trend and pick sentence case or, if you prefer the formality of title case, go with full title case, where every word, large or small, is capitalized. Time is precious, life is short, and as I reach the end of this sentence, we’ve all probably spent as much time as we ever should thinking about how to capitalize headlines.