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Sentence case or title case?

How we read on the web is becoming more and more understood. Gone are the days of sparkly “Word art” and wild coloured backgrounds (although not entirely). User research and user experience (UX) design is encouraged to explore further. However, there’s long been an argument between using title case or sentence case.

When writing for the web your titles and headings are one of the most important things you need to consider. But it’s not just what you write for your titles, but how they’re written. There’s pros and cons for both sentence and title case - but it’s also worth considering how readers perceive these within the context of the format. The format of your content must be consistent if you want clear readability.

Sentence case

Sentence case is when only the first letter of the first word in a title (and any proper noun) is capitalised, such as:

This is a sentence case title

The use of upper case throughout words affects the shape of the word. Some believe that, when reading, the shape of the word is what we actually recognise. In one study, researchers presented the subjects with a series of real words and made up words. The made up words elicited responses from a wide pool of neurons in the brain, while distinct groups of neurons responded to real words. After subjects were trained to recognise the made up words, neurons responded as they did to real words.

However, some believe it’s a myth that the shape of the word affects how we read. A study by Kenneth Paap (1984) and Keith Rayner (1998) revealed that when we read, we recognise and anticipate letters. Based on those letters we then recognise the word.

Sentence case is also more like how humans communicate. We don’t use title case for texts, emails and letters. Your writing on the web should be conversational and approachable. Writing as humans naturally do is a good way of doing this. If your writing doesn’t feel natural or approachable it distances the reader. It should be written how you speak, only better - editing the phrases to be succinct and precise.

It’s lack of authority means sentence case may not be considered “serious” enough for a certain theme of content. Also, title case clearly defines the line of content as a heading. If headings aren’t made clear enough it may not draw the eye in the same way title case does.

Title case

Title case is when the first letter of each word is capitalised, such as:

This Is a Title Case Title

Considered traditional, title case is generally associated with authority and importance. It’s mostly used for newspapers and academic publications. Front loaded, meaningful headings within content are one of the ways we navigate a page. Headings within bodies of text that use title case draw the reader’s eye and provides emphasis.

One problem with title case is knowing what to capitalise. Some people capitalise the first letter of every word. This is OK until it starts creeping throughout the page, overwhelming the content. Lots of capitalisation, especially all capitals, also reduces legibility.

However others don’t capitalise words with 3 letters or less, or determiners, such as:

This can get confusing for writers who aren’t sure, but also the lack of consistency can disrupt the reader. Consistency isn’t just about the tone and voice. The way it’s written is important because that’s what the reader sees first. Also, we don’t read in a expected, fluid way - we saccade. This means the eye moves rapidly, flitting from one point of the page to the other in no particular order.

Having clear titles helps engage the reader’s saccade - this is called dominance. Dominance is a web design principle. Using varying levels of headings - for example h1, h2, h3 - allows the user to instinctively understand the hierarchy of the page.

In summary

Both title and sentence case have their benefits. Their use is more applicable in some contexts rather than others because the reader considers them differently.

However, for me, sentence case is better. Its cleaner, clearer and neater on the page. Title case is better for printed newspapers and headlines. But, for writing for the web, sentence case is more appropriate because of how people read online and it’s more conversational manner.

The most important thing to remember is consistency. To reflect your decision on title or sentence case produce a style guide for your brand or service. Make sure the style guide is referred to and used throughout the product. Inconsistencies are more distracting, and more obvious than you might think, for the reader.

15 May 2017

This article was originally published on Prototypr on 15 May 2017.