Is “Is” Always Capitalized in Titles?

A neon sign against a brick wall. The sign reads "LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL" in all capital letters.

CMOS 8.159 in the Spotlight

A defining feature of any style is how it capitalizes words in the titles of books, articles, and other works. Most recommend a variation of title case, or what CMOS has traditionally referred to as headline style.

And though there are some differences among the major styles—for example, AP and APA capitalize any word of four letters or more—they all specify an initial capital for verbs, regardless of length.

This includes the word “is,” as in the song title “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, 1962). When such a title is mentioned in ordinary text or in a source citation (see also CMOS 14.87), there are generally no exceptions. But there are some nuances to consider, including some graphical contexts where it may be appropriate to leave “is” lowercase.

“Is” in Title Case*

“Is” is a mere linking verb, the textual equivalent of an equals sign—and it’s only two letters long. So it’s an easy word to forget to capitalize.

Nor does “is” appear all that frequently in titles, considering its ubiquity in ordinary prose. When it is used, it’s sometimes contracted, which is a good way of minimizing its impact. Take the iconic movie title It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Without the contraction, and particularly with a capital I, the emphasis would shift toward the verb: It Is a Wonderful Life.

“Is” is spelled out in the title of the 1997 movie Life Is Beautiful (a translation from the original Italian), so it gets a capital I in Chicago style.† But the word is de-emphasized in the poster art for the theatrical release. Notice how the movie’s title is in caps and small caps except for the word “is,” which is in all small caps—and in a smaller font than any of the other letters in the title:

Movie poster for "Life Is Beautiful"

That works well: “Life” and “Beautiful” are the words that matter most. Consider also the cover for Sue Grafton’s novel Y Is for Yesterday (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017):‡

Book cover for "Y is for Yesterday," by Sue Grafton

The connecting words “is for” are both lowercase (in Chicago and many other styles, lowercase would be the norm for the preposition “for”), which allows the more important elements in the title to stand out. In Grafton’s title—as in each of the titles mentioned in this post—“is” plays more of a supporting than a leading role.

A lowercase “is” like the one on the Grafton cover would be unlikely to make it past Chicago’s editorial team. But our publications tend to be scholarly in nature; in more creative contexts, rules are made to be broken.

What’s the Verdict?

“Is” is a verb, so unless it’s hiding behind a contraction, it should always be capitalized in titles mentioned in the text or in a Chicago-style source citation. But it’s a humble little word that doesn’t always like to stand out. In a graphical setting like a book cover or a movie poster, bigger isn’t necessarily better.

* Note that the subheads in this post are in title case, but sentence case is also an option for subheads, provided it’s consistently applied across a document (see also CMOS 2.18 and 8.158).

† Interestingly, Wikipedia’s entry for Life Is Beautiful (as of August 23, 2021; specifically, the page for the movie directed by and starring Roberto Benigni) mentions or cites that title twenty-eight times (up to and including the bibliography); in thirteen of those instances—or nearly half—the word “is” is spelled with a small i. Apparently, it’s natural to want to lowercase “is” in a title. Note also that each instance of the title in the Wikipedia entry is otherwise in title case, with a capital L and capital B. In sentence case, only the first word would be capitalized: Life is beautiful—or La vita è bella in the original Italian, where sentence case is the norm (see CMOS 11.6).

‡ According to CMOS 7.64, letters used as letters are normally italicized. In an italic title, however, either roman type or quotation marks would be the only viable Chicago-style options (see CMOS 8.173). However, as the cover and title page of the book uses neither, we’ve decided to leave the Y alone. Ditto for “Yesterday,” a word used as a word—which, according to CMOS 7.63, would normally be set in either italics or quotation marks.

Top image: Life Is Beautiful, by Linnaea Mallette (public domain).

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One thought on “Is “Is” Always Capitalized in Titles?

  1. To cite a book’s title as displayed on its dust jacket is a risky thing. Looking at past volumes of Grafton’s novels will show the word “is” sometimes capitalized, as in “P Is for Peril” and “N Is for Noose.” The jacket’s designer may be taking liberties with the precise title to subject it to his or her graphic sensibilities. By the time a book’s jacket is designed, everyone involved is sprinting toward a final deadline and nuances of typography are less of a priority.

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