Sentence case or title case in forms?

rows of capital letters in a printer's tray
Avoid capitalising every word: Photo by Natalia Y on Unsplash

Is it better to use sentence case or title case in forms?

If you think “surely there are more important forms questions than that one” then you are right. Never once, in all my many years of watching people fill in forms, has anyone ever said to me “You know, the biggest problem with this form is inappropriate use of capital letters”. Nor, when investigating errors on forms, have I ever considered that a change of capitalisation would make any worthwhile difference. So honestly it doesn’t matter all that much.

But if you’ve found yourself, or your colleagues or clients, wasting time by arguing about this then here you are.

Sentence case means using capitals as in a sentence

By ‘sentence case’ I mean using capitals as we do when we’re writing a sentence – like this one.

‘Title case’ is a little more confusing as there are different interpretations. Generally, title case means that most, but not all, words get capital letters.When I write about ‘title case’ in forms I mean  “Using Capitals as in Writing a Title, Like This One”.

There’s Also Putting A Capital Letter At The Beginning Of Every Word. That’s not title case – that’s ‘a capital on every word’.

There are other occasions where you might use title case

What about other things that occur in continuous prose but aren’t titles or sentences? If a heading occurs below title level, then in the USA it’s usual to use title case for it. Outside the USA, there’s generally a trend to use sentence case for headings.

That’s because many people find a sentence written in title case harder to read, even when that sentence is set off as a heading – like the sentence coming up.

This Line Is Intended to Be a Heading

The sentence immediately before this one is in title case. To me, from the UK, it’s harder to read with those capital letters. Only a little bit harder. The problem is lack of familiarity. I’m more familiar with sentences in sentence case than in title case, so a sentence in title case is harder work.

If you speak English as a first language in the USA then you see a lot of headings in title case and will barely notice.

For everyone else (people outside the USA, people reading English as a second or additional language, people with reading difficulties of any sort), that lack of familiarity just makes title case a touch harder.

If you’re a US writer and want to be understood easily  by other people, there’s a simple solution: get used to writing your headings in sentence case. (In theory you could shorten your headings so they aren’t full sentences. But that makes them harder to read for other reasons so don’t do it).

Forms are full of things that are not continuous prose

Now we come to the forms bit. Forms are not continuous prose and they aren’t headings either. The text in them can be:

  • Instructions
  • Questions
  • Hints
  • Declarations

or something else. The text may be set in various ways relative to the other items on the form, for example the boxes.

The alert reader will notice that I sneakily put some capitals into that bulletted sentence. Bullet pointed lists create some slightly different reading behaviour and you probably didn’t mind those capitals.

Now try the sentence “The text in them can be Instructions, Questions, Hints or Declarations.” That reads oddly for me. Maybe for you, too? Such is the power of familiarity.

Use sentence case throughout your form

But back to the forms. My view is: if the piece of text in a form is a full sentence, then definitely write it in sentence case. If not, then for consistency you may as well put all the other bits into sentence case too.

Let’s try an example. I’m going to put  [     ]  when I mean “box to type/write into”. I’ve made the boxes the same size here and quite small – in the actual form, you’d adjust them to be rather longer.

Let’s say we want to ask someone to type their first name with the question “What is your first name?”.

In sentence case, that would be:

What is your first name? [       ]

In title case, it would be:

What Is Your First Name? [      ]

The title case version of the fully-written-out question seems awkward to me.

Now let’s think about asking the question in this abbreviated way, first of all in sentence case:

First name [       ]

And now in title case:

First Name [      ]

With only two words in the abbreviated method, the title case is barely noticeable. So we’re back to my opening point, which is that it doesn’t matter all that much. But my recommendation is to stick to sentence case for purposes of consistency with the headings, instructions, and other parts of the form.

I only have a little research to support this

What research do I have? Not much. It’s extremely difficult to research legibility in the abstract, such as this discussion.

The article on legibility that I refer to most often is Kevin Larson’s explanation of word recognition, where he points out that a huge amount what makes something more or less legible is familiarity. “Lowercase is faster than uppercase because of practice.”

Legibility research at the level of a detail like “which of these is more legible: First Name [    ] or First name [     ] ?” is pretty much impossible. People who are dealing with the form are paying 99% or more of their attention to topics like “Why are they asking for my first name?” or “Will I ever get to the end of this form?” or “When I’ve finished this form, will I get the grant I’ve applied for?” or “What’s for dinner?”.

Testing for legibility is hard because of this condunrum: If you take the capitalisation challenge out of the context of the specific question in an actual form, then you can get the people who try your experience to focus on the capitalisation because you have excluded the other issues. But then you’re testing capitalisation out of context, so is that really translatable back to the context of the good old everyday form? I muse at length on this topic in an article for the Journal of Usability Studies:

My recommendation is to use sentence case

Overall, I recommend going with the sentence case. It’s easier for you to do, because you avoid any discussion about which words to stick the capitals on to do title case correctly.  It’s very unlikely to be less legible. (But good news: you can skip the period/full stop at the end of sentence fragments like First name [ ]).

If you go with my recommendation and THEN get a constant stream of complaints about the punctuation of your forms AND that overwhelms all other complaints – congratulations. Your forms are fantastic and you can punctuate them however you like.

But don’t get too excited. I’ve yet to see any complaint, ever, about punctuation in forms – with the exception of apostrophes, which are a whole other story.