How To Punctuate Titles in a Manuscript

Does this seem like a snore of a How-To post? If so, let me explain why I’m devoting a How-To Thursday to a subject so seemingly banal.

There are scores of resources on how to correctly punctuate the titles of books, songs, movies, newspapers, articles, and other works of art. Despite that, I often make title corrections in manuscripts. This tells me that while it’s easy to research, title punctuation still baffles a lot of writers.

So here is a quick and easy way to remember what gets put in italics and what goes between quotation marks.


If it’s big, use italics. If it’s small, use quotation marks.

Think you’ll forget that? Here’s a mnemonic: Big has an I in it—so does italics. Small has an M in it—so do quotation marks.

Big. “Small.”

Get it? If the mnemonic doesn’t work, let’s try a visual exercise.

Stare at this: Big. “Small.” Now close your eyes and picture the words: Big. “Small.”

Got it?

Next, what do I mean by big and small?

A book is big. A short story is small.

A newspaper is big. A news story is small.

A magazine is big. An article is small.

A poetry collection is big. A poem is small.

A CD is big. An song is small.

A  TV show is big. An episode of a TV show is small.

A movie is big. A commercial is small.

A play is big. A skit is small.

A painting is big. A photograph is small.

A sculpture is big.


~ Big: Moby Dick ~  Small: “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

~ Big: The Chicago Daily Tribune ~  Small: “Dewey Defeats Truman”

~ Big: Writers Digest ~ Small: “How to Punctuate Titles”

~ Big: Leaves of Grass ~ Small: “I Sing the Body Electric”

~ Big: Meet the Beatles ~  Small: “I Want to Hold Your Hand”

~ Big: The Big Bang Theory ~  Small: “The Friendship Algorithm”

~ Big: Casablanca ~  Small: “Beer House”

~ Big: The Crucible ~ Small: “Land Shark”

~ Big: The Starry Night ~  Small: “Migrant Mother”

~ Big: Michelangelo’s David.

Big things stand on their own. Small things are often parts of something larger, but this is not an absolute. This is the English language, remember, so exceptions are the norm.

Some exceptions:

Religious tomes like The Bible and The Koran are capitalized. No italics or quotation marks.

An epic poem, one that is so long that it can be published on its own, is big: Paradise Lost

If you are confused, please do not use italics AND quotation marks.

Just remember this: I is for Big and Italics. M is for Small and Quotation Marks.

Also, there’s a rat in separate. (Sorry. But I do wish people would learn that one!)



16 thoughts on “How To Punctuate Titles in a Manuscript

  1. If I had this clear and helpful essay available for sharing when I taught high school, I may have suffered less need to bang my head on the wall. Well done!
    Plain text posts don’t allow italics or underlining, so a friend developed a shorthand underlining “cheat” _Moby Dick_ for those of us who can’t stand to leave a title unpunctuated. On TLC several of the writers used all-caps for titles MOBY DICK.


  2. Great explanation! I hope I can remember it when I need it. 🙂

    Email is an unfortunate game changer. I cap my titles and use asterisks for quotes in emails and list posts since italics and quotes get lost and/or garbled in online text. Grrrr.

    Did you think this up yourself? It’s genius.


  3. Hi, Ramona —

    This is brilliant. Thank you. I love mnemonic devices. Without them I would have forgotten many of the things I learned long ago. The one I still rely on is how to distinguish e.g. from i.e. E is for example. When I’m writing, I still have to remember that mnemonic to use the right one. Must be a mental block.

    I’ve learned so much from your blogs. Thank you.

    P.S. A real challenge is remembering how to spell mnemonic.


  4. I’ve always been frustrated that FB does not give us options for underlining or italics
    so I am guilty of overusing quotation marks. ARGHHHH


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