The question of whether title case or sentence case is the better style for headings is hotly debated, and a pro-sentence case argument that I regularly see is that using title case can result in ambiguous headlines. For example, an article making this claim uses the following heading to support it:
How to Get to Reading
Another blog article cites this example:
Doctors Warn About Growing Apple Addiction Among Youth
Both headings are indeed ambiguous (the first one could refer to the English town). But is this really a convincing reason to switch to sentence case? Let’s find out.
Ambiguous headlines are not a rare phenomenon, and lists of such headlines can be found on the internet. A typical example is
Teacher strikes idle kids
which has two meanings, “Teacher hits lazy kids” and “Teacher walkouts leave kids idle.”
There is even a dedicated term for such ambiguous headlines: crash blossoms. It is derived from the headline
Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms
More information on the origin of this term can be found in a New York Times article, which also lists more examples, including
McDonald’s fries the Holy Grail for potato farmers
British left waffles on Falklands
Gator attacks puzzle experts
These examples all have in common that they are ambiguous independent of the capitalization style, i.e., using sentence case instead of title case doesn’t solve the problem of ambiguity. Of course, it is certainly true that headlines exist that are only ambiguous when title case is used, e.g.,
EU Leaders to Discuss Turkey at December Summit
However, the opposite is also true: Some headlines and titles are ambiguous in sentence case, but not in title case. Consider for example
Activist takes on climate change
This headline could mean “Activist tackles climate change” or “Activist opinions on climate change.” In title case, the intended meaning would be clear, because it would be “Takes On” in the first case (on is an adverb in a phrasal verb), or “Takes on” in the second case (on is a preposition).
Another example is the song title
Girls like us
This title can be interpreted in two ways, but when a title case style is used in which four-letter prepositions are lowercase, it is immediately clear whether like is used as a preposition (“Girls like Us”) or verb (“Girls Like Us”).
Garden-path sentences are closely related to crash blossoms. While also confusing, they are not ambiguous though and can only be interpreted in one way. However, arriving at that interpretation is difficult, since the reader usually makes a wrong assumption (they are led down the garden path), and then has to backtrack and re-read the sentence to really understand it.
A classical example is
The old man the boat
The initial assumption is that “the old man” is a noun phrase, but then this sentence doesn’t make sense. In fact, “the old” is the noun phrase in this sentence, and “man” is the verb. Further examples are:
The dog that I had really loved bones
The horse raced past the barn fell
Fat people eat accumulates
Most garden-path headlines are confusing independent of the capitalization style, but still, the fact that some headlines are confusing in title case, but not in sentence case, is used as an argument against title case, for example in a tweet about this headline:
Doctor Who Is Allergic to COVID Vaccine Says People Need to Get Shots
But this does not take into account how rare headlines are that are only confusing in title case, and ignores that sometimes it’s the other way round. Consider the famous sentence
Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana
When using a title case style like Chicago or MLA, the preposition like is lowercased, but the verb like is not, so the reader immediately sees that they are used differently:
Time Flies like an Arrow; Fruit Flies Like a Banana
By the way, how confusing a crash blossom or garden-path headline is can also depend on the background or experience of the reader. For example, the following headline is more likely to be misinterpreted by a British person than by an American:
Boeheim taunted by fans, mum after loss
And this headline from the New York Times
Most Patients’ Care Bears Little Resemblance to Trump’s
is only confusing if you are familiar with Care Bears.
Headlines can be ambiguous or confusing, and that is something every writer should be mindful of. Choosing sentence case over title case can avoid ambiguity, but only in a few select cases; it doesn’t generally solve the problem. While there are undoubtedly good reasons why sentence case is preferable to title case in certain scenarios, preventing ambiguity is not a very convincing argument in my opinion.
A better way to deal with this problem is to check for such headlines before publication. Writers are prone to overlook ambiguity in their own headlines though, just like they are often blind to their own typos. The solution is to involve a third party, for example, a professional proofreader. Once ambiguous or garden-path sentences are detected, they can usually be corrected with little effort.
In any case, no matter if you prefer title case or sentence case, this site has converters for both styles, so you can easily check your headlines and titles, or convert from one style to the other. Check out the Sentence Case Converter and the Title Case Converter!
Photo: Veronica Reverse