Behind the Stylepunctuationtitles of works
Punctuation with TitlesBy Jennifer Rappaport
In a previous Ask the MLA post, we explained how to incorporate titles ending in question marks or exclamation points into works-cited-list entries. But how do you incorporate such titles into your prose? How do you handle titles ending in other punctuation marks? And what should you do about other matters of punctuation related to titles?
Titles Ending in Question Marks or Exclamation Points in Your Prose
At the MLA, we never insert a period after a title ending in a question mark or exclamation point, but we insert a comma if doing so makes a sentence easier to read—for example, when such a title is one item in a series or when the title is contained in a nonrestrictive clause:
But when possible, we prefer to reword:
Titles That Need to Be Shortened
When we need to shorten a really long title in a works-cited-list entry, we add an ellipsis after the first part of the title up to at least the first noun. If a work has an alternative title, we might include it. If a period is needed, we insert the period before the ellipsis and set the punctuation roman:
If a comma is needed, as it would be when the long title is the title of a container, we insert it after the ellipsis. We set the ellipsis and the comma roman:
In prose, we omit the ellipsis:
Philocophus; or, The Deafe and Dumbe Mans Friend was written by John Bulwer.
Titles Ending in an Ellipsis or Dash
If the ellipsis is part of the title, we add the period or comma after the ellipsis. The ellipsis is set in italics if the title is italicized, but the additional punctuation is set roman:
Reiner, Rob, director. When Harry Met Sally . . . . MGM, 1989.
We follow the same principle if a title ends in a dash:
Dickinson, Emily. “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—.” The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin, Harvard UP, 1999.
Titles and Subtitles
Section 1.2.1 of the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook says, “Use a colon and a space to separate a title from a subtitle, unless the title ends in a question mark or an exclamation point. Include other punctuation only if it is part of the title or subtitle.”
The handbook provides the following examples:
But sometimes titles are not straightforward. In such cases, we follow some additional rules.
For example, when a title is followed by two subtitles, we use two colons:
For works published in English, when a period separates a title and a subtitle on the title page, we change the period to a colon. When a question mark, exclamation point, or dash separates a title and a subtitle on the title page, we leave the original mark:
But if a title contains a title ending in a question mark or exclamation point, we add a colon:
Here the exclamation point is part of the title Absalom, Absalom!, so a colon is needed to separate the title Moby-Dick and Absalom, Absalom! from the subtitle.
In foreign language publications, we follow the source when punctuating titles.
For an alternative or double title in English beginning with or, we follow the first example given in section 8.165 of The Chicago Manual of Style and punctuate as follows:
But no semicolon is needed for a title in English that ends with a question mark or exclamation point:
For double titles of foreign language publications, we follow the source.
Dates in Titles
Unless a date is part of a title’s syntax, we follow section 8.163 of Chicago and set it off with a comma:
Serial Comma in Titles
Contrary to section 8.163 of Chicago, for English-language titles of books published in the United States, we add the serial comma before the conjunction preceding the final item in a series if the comma is missing. Otherwise, we follow the source. The following book was published by Verso in London, so the serial comma is not added:
The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed., U of Chicago P, 2016.
MLA Handbook. 8th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2016.
Published 29 December 2017
Jennifer Rappaport is managing editor, MLA style resources, at the Modern Language Association. She received a BA in English and French from Vassar College and an MA in comparative literature from New York University, where she taught expository writing. Before coming to the MLA, she worked as an editor at a university press and as a freelance copyeditor and translator for commercial and academic publishers.
Properly Punctuating Titles
Properly punctuating titles of literature, music, art, movies, and other works can be confusing, and the rules aren’t always consistent from resource to resource regarding this topic. Also, since mistakes are prevalent, we are so used to seeing the wrong punctuation that it actually looks right!
Here are some helpful hints on how to properly punctuate titles using capitalization, italics, underlining, and quotation marks.
Step 1, Capitalize Titles Correctly!
Although rules regarding correct title capitalization vary greatly, here are a few pointers to stand by: Capitalize the first and last word in a title and every word in the title except articles and prepositions. Some suggest capitalizing prepositions five letters or more in length, and I agree with this simply because it looks better (hence, my business name is All About Writing instead of All about Writing).
Capitalizing involves only the first letter of the word, of course.
When to Use Italics: Titles of Larger Works
Italics indicate the title of a major or larger work. Use italics for titles such as books, novels, magazines, journals, newspapers, and book-length poems, collections and anthologies; CDs, albums, ballets, operas, and longer, classical music compositions; television series, plays, movies, and films; video games; websites; and works of art and art exhibits.
Just remember, the title of any piece that stands alone as a single, unified work should be italicized.
What About Underlining?
In general, underlining and italics are used interchangeably, so the above rules for italics also apply for underlining.
However, when using the computer or typing, italics should always be used. Underlining should replace italics in handwritten projects only, as who has mastered the art of writing in italics so that it is legible and noticeable?
When to Use Quotation Marks: Titles of Smaller Works
Since quotation marks are tiny, you can remember that they are used for smaller works within the larger work or collection. Use quotation marks for titles of poems, short stories, book chapters, and articles in journals, magazines, and newspapers; and songs, single television episodes, and commercials.
It is important to be consistent throughout your writing with properly using italics versus quotation marks. Writing handbooks (Chicago Manual of Style, MLA, APA, and many others) vary in their rules for capitalizing and punctuating titles. Certain writing projects mandate using one writing handbook’s format over the others, so for academic work, please check with your professor as to the preferred handbook to use for your writing, citation, and punctuation guidelines.
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