The Subject Is the Subject

Friend of the blog Kasey recently asked, “How are we supposed to use capitalization in the subject line of an e-mail?” There isn’t a single rule governing subject lines, but there are two commonly accepted ways to capitalize titles (of anything—e-mails, books, memos), and each have their own rules.

Sentence-style capitalization, which seems to be the most common approach to e-mail subject lines (as well as most newspaper headlines), is straightforward enough: capitalize the first word and all proper nouns. For example: Kasey’s top five Santa Barbara lunch spots.

Initial capitalization, which is equally acceptable for e-mail titles, is a bit trickier. The following elements should be capitalized:

  • First words
  • Nouns (proper and common) and pronouns
  • Verbs (note that this includes tiny words that are commonly confused with articles or prepositions: Is, Are, Be)
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs

Examples: Kasey’s Top Five Santa Barbara Lunch Spots; What Is Kasey’s Position on Subject Lines? (Lowercase the purely mechanical forms of speech—prepositions and articles [in, on, to, and].)

Is one style more appropriate for e-mail subject lines? It depends on who you are, what you’re sending, and whom you’re communicating with. If you’re e-mailing an informal note from your personal account to a friend, then sentence-style is just fine. But if you’re a businessperson e-mailing a newsletter to customers using your company’s institutional account, then initial capitalization will give the message a more formal, authoritative feel.

One Response to “The Subject Is the Subject”
  1. Laura says:

    When I’m asked my opinion about which capitalization style to use, I always recommend sentence style. Why? Because there is only one rule (capitalize as if it were a sentence) and nobody gets it wrong. In addition, the rules for initial cap style vary greatly. Some in-house style guides insist that the last word must always be capitalized, regardless of part of speech. Some folks insist that prepositions are lowercase except those of four or more characters (others say five or more characters). But some say there are exceptions: If the preposition is necessary to the verb, it should be capitalized, too (like “Log On” and “Sign Up”). And what about conjunctions? You don’t even mention those.

    Sentence style has an additional advantage: Proper nouns (like company and product names) stand out from surrounding text. Compare the two styles and their effect:

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