3
$\begingroup$

What is the standard for the formatting of the titles of posts? What is the standard for editing the titles of posts?

I've been away for a while, and when I logged in today I noticed that the title of one of my posts had been edited: "Spin Glass Prince Rupert's Drop" has been changed to "Spin glass Prince Rupert's drop."

I disagree with this edit and am curious about what the standard for such edits are.

Firstly, I was under the impression that the standard for formatting edits was to clarify and universalize (i.e. break up blocks of text, add wiki links for important concepts, fix spelling or syntactical errors, remove superfluous fluff like "Thanks!" and "I hope this gets answered. :D", etc.).

Second, I assumed that the standard formatting for post titles would follow that of most other written works - capitalize nouns, verbs, and other major words but don't capitalize prepositions, conjunctions, or articles unless they are the first word in the title. (Here's a little PDF I found from a quick Google search that sums up what I understand to be the standard for title formatting.)

I'm just a bit confused about why the title of that post was edited. I do not think that the edit improves clarity - in fact, I think that it makes the title marginally less clear - therefore, the edit should not have been made at all. And, in addition, I think that the edit is incorrect from a stylistic standpoint.

What are the standards for formatting edits and post titles?

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ More on titles: meta.physics.stackexchange.com/q/6413/2451 , meta.physics.stackexchange.com/q/1000/2451 and links therein. $\endgroup$ – Qmechanic Dec 6 '15 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Qmechanic Thanks for posting those. I didn't really think to link to them, but I probably should have. Here is another from the site-wide meta. I really hope that there will be some discussion about this here because I feel strongly that we should avoid micromanaging content with unnecessary edits. But if DanielSank's post really represents the consensus opinion about how titles should be structured, then perhaps the community also feels that enforcing the nuances of those standards is a good use of time. $\endgroup$ – Geoffrey Dec 6 '15 at 21:51
  • $\begingroup$ For this particular example, I find that the use of title case on 'glass' and 'drop' detracts from the clarity of having 'Prince' and 'Rupert' capitalized, which is part of the name. Still not an amazing title, though. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Dec 7 '15 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Geoffrey why is the question of whether a particular class of edits is good use of time relevant? It's not like we're paying the users around here :-) $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Dec 8 '15 at 21:13
4
$\begingroup$

Second, I assumed that the standard formatting for post titles would follow that of most other written works - capitalize nouns, verbs, and other major words but don't capitalize prepositions, conjunctions, or articles unless they are the first word in the title.

That is incorrect. We discussed titles at length in the meta. One of the things the FAQ says is [1]

"Capitalize only the first word and proper nouns in the title. Do not capitalize other words."

Note the FAQ tag there, which I believe indicates that the post there and its accepted answer is considered site standard. We should follow that standard whether or not we agree with the stylistic choice.

I think that the edit is incorrect from a stylistic standpoint.

It doesn't matter; we have a site standard and we should adhere to it. Consistency is much more important than choosing the right convention. For example, programmers have a variety of opinions on issues such as camelCase versus lower_case_with_underscores conventions for variable names. Most people agree that the choice doesn't matter nearly as much as consistency within a language or project.

I'm just a bit confused about why the title of that post was edited.

I made that edit. I did it because we have a site standard for titles and I think it makes the front page much easier to read if all the titles conform to that standard.

I do not think that the edit improves clarity - in fact, I think that it makes the title marginally less clear - therefore, the edit should not have been made at all. And, in addition, I think that the edit is incorrect from a stylistic standpoint.

As DavidZ already pointed out, that edit was not about clarity, it was about conforming to site standards.

[1] Note that although I wrote both the question and answer, it was edited in accordance with the input from other users. I'm not just promoting my own opinion here. In fact, the part about not capitalizing all words in titles was not written by me. Also, I do not have the ability to put the FAQ tag on meta posts, so someone else with way more power than I decided to make that Q&A the standard.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ You know, I just don't see it. I fully admit that good titles are extremely important, but I don't think that this is a beneficial or important standard to have. In fact, it's probably a detrimental standard since it could be easily replaced with something slightly stronger that would prevent these sorts of silly issues. But I'm not so bold as to think that I know best in all things, and if the community thinks that this is important or that this is the best standard for writing titles, then I have no problem admitting that I'm probably mistaken. $\endgroup$ – Geoffrey Dec 8 '15 at 23:22
2
$\begingroup$

The First Law of Editing: if an edit makes your question less clear (to readers, not necessarily just to you), revert it.

That being said, your assumption that post titles follow the capitalization conventions of titles in other works is not correct, because the titles of SE questions are more like summaries, not actual titles per se. A question post's title should be a single sentence that represents the actual question which is being asked, or at least a phrase that conveys the core of that question.

If we accept that the proper capitalization is not "Title Case" but "Sentence case", then the question remains of whether it's worth making an edit to fix title capitalization and nothing else. I tend to agree with the view posted in this answer to another question, which is that these edits span a range from slightly-too-minor to just-significant-enough, depending on how much of the capitalization needs to be fixed. Specifically, if a title has just one capital letter where there shouldn't be one, that's probably too minor to fix, but if all the words (with, say, a 5-word title) are capitalized according to the wrong convention, it's probably worth an edit. Our view on minor edits here tends to be that any edit which makes the post better is acceptable, and we only consider edits "too minor" when they don't make any improvement to the post at all.


A note on this:

I do not think that the edit improves clarity - in fact, I think that it makes the title marginally less clear - therefore, the edit should not have been made at all.

This edit was never about clarity, it was about standardization. In any case, I think the position that the edit makes the question less clear to a majority of readers is difficult to justify. If this truly is the case - that is, if people will understand the meaning of the title differently because it is missing some capital letters - then by all means the edit should be rolled back, but I don't think that's what's going on.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Note that the FAQ on titles specifically says not to capitalize all the words in a title. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Dec 8 '15 at 5:39
2
$\begingroup$

The number one priority for the site is that we have members prepared to work at posting good questions and good answers. Right now we have a serious deficit of the former, and while we have lots of people working hard at the latter more are always welcome.

Compared to this any debates about about capitalisation in titles are utterly trivial. The idea that we would turn away a good contributor to the site because they insisted on a certain capitalisation standard is ludicrous, if not also rather arrogant.

If you don't like the edit then revert it. The OP always has the last say and the only sanction for site members is to close and/or delete the question - neither of which would be done in this case. Your question makes a net positive contribution to the Physics SE regardless of how you format the title.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'm mildly curious to know what the downvoter disagreed with $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Dec 8 '15 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ For whatever it's worth here, I edit questions to improve grammar, improve math formatting, improve punctuation, and bring the titles into accordance with site standard as defined in the meta all the time. I do this because these things make it easier for a would-be answer writer to comprehend the question. I think that's a very important part of the Q&A process. I think particularly new users do not understand how many great answers are never written because the question is annoying to read. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Dec 8 '15 at 21:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @DanielSank: yes, I agree, and I also edit questions where I think I can improve them. There's nothing wrong with that and no criticism of you or any other site members is meant. But this whole thread is a storm in a teacup. If anyone considers changing the case of words in a question title to be a critical matter then they have a serious sense of perspective failure. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Dec 9 '15 at 6:35
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie I completely agree which is why I asked the question. I am by no means upset by the edits that have been made, I just disagree with them and found them confusing. I think that the most significant thing that I've learned here is that we have a fairly arbitrary (and in my opinion, unnecessary) standard for title formatting that several people feel is important enough to enfore. But I suspect that they actually feel that this standard is important for entirely legitimate and not-at-all arbitrary reasons (like improving readability and user experience). $\endgroup$ – Geoffrey Dec 9 '15 at 17:13
1
$\begingroup$

This is a pretty long post, but if you want to just get the gist, you can read the bolded lines and the summary at the end.

Before I begin, I'll mention that I don't disagree with most of the statements that have been made in this thread or in others; however, I do take issue with some of the more pointed ideas. In this post, I will lay out what I think the standards for title formatting and minor edits ought to be.

1) Minor Edits - Many edits are objective improvements to a post. For instance, they might correct spelling, grammar, and/or math. However, the sort of edit at issue here falls into the gray area of judgment calls: "Does this edit improve clarity? If so, by how much?" or "Does this edit help the post conform more closely to the expectations of our users?" As a result, we must all use our best judgment when making and reviewing such edits. As David Z points out, we must try to make edits that improve the experience not only for ourselves but for everyone. For this reason, I think that editorial restraint is the most important standard for minor edits. That is to say: "Even if a post might be slightly improved by my edit I should not make this edit if the post is good enough already."

Neither I nor anyone else knows what style or structure is most clear for the majority of users on this site because we are all - each of us - only one person. Therefore, just as we ought to try and put ourselves in others shoes when reviewing whether to keep an edit or not, we should also do that when deciding whether to make an edit in the first place. It is not our place to make sure that every post on this site is as good as it possibly can be, and even if it were, we have no way of knowing that the small stylistic change we are about to make will improve anyone's experience but our own. As a result, we ought to err on the side of the author when deciding whether a post is "good enough already."

2) Title Formatting - There are two slightly different standards for capitalizing titles at issue here. The first represents most written works and other works or art (for which I will follow David Z's lead and refer to it as "Title Case"). The second is a common but not entirely universal standard for titling academic papers (which I'll call "Sentence case"). I contend that both have a place among post tiles on this site and that there is no reason to apply one standard over the other in all circumstances.

It is my opinion that a good post title conveys the most important information about the post clearly and in the fewest words possible. Sometimes the best way to do this is with a short phrase consisting mostly of nouns - this way the topic is presented cleanly and directly. Sometimes the best way is to use a short sentence fragment usually starting with a participle (this is a style common among academic papers). And sometimes the best way to do this is to ask the question itself in the title; however, this is often not possible because the topic is either too complicated or not understood well-enough by the questioner to allow for this. The first type of title benefits from "Title Case" while the second two make more sense using "Sentence case."

Now let's address this specific example. "Spin Glass Prince Rupert's Drop" is a newly coined phrase that is the combination of two existing phrases: "spin glass" and "Prince Rupert's drop." Each word in this new phrase is equally important, and de-emphasizing any of them muddles its meaning. Of course I can only speak for myself, but when reading titles I tend to skim. I read all of the words but really only pay attention to the most important words, and I take my cues on what is important from the capitalization of the title. This is because I have an expectation that the author will both make sense with his words and convey meaningful information to me. I largely ignore lower-case words as essential to the sense of the title but not to the title's meaning. Therefore, changing the title to "Spin glass Prince Rupert's drop" is a detriment to the reader because he will instinctively take the title's meaning from "Spin Prince Rupert's" and be forced to focus more closely or read the title again to avoid missing a significant portion of the content.

At this point, I re-emphasize that this is only a marginal decrease in clarity. The title works either way, but it is for precisely that reason that it should not have been changed. Editorial restraint ought to be the standard for edits of this sort, and this edit demonstrates anything but.

3) The Uses of Different Titles - As I mentioned earlier, I think that both capitalization conventions have their place. "Title Case" is good for short titles that are conveying a large amount of meaning in a small space, while "Sentence case" is much more suitable to longer titles that are expressing more nuanced ideas. It would be silly to use "Title Case" in a question or a long sentence fragment because it would muddle the readers ability to parse the sentence's meaning.

For example, the title "Finding the electric field outside of a uniformly charged sphere" is vastly superior to "Electric Field outside of a Uniformly Charged Sphere" and slightly better than "How do I find the electric field outside of a uniformly charged sphere?" My reasoning is that the first title emphasizes the fact that the question is about computation while including the necessary information about what the computation will address. On the other hand, the second title is not only exhausting to read it is also vague - "What about the electric field?" the reader is forced to ask. Finally, the question form of that title is pretty good, but it is unnecessarily long and buries all of the meaning.

As a result, each of these types of titles is good for different sorts of questions. Short, "Title Case" titles are good for analogical or existential questions and toy problems. Sentence fragment titles are good for computational problems and problem solving. Question titles are good for succinct, direct questions (like, "What causes a double rainbow?" or "Is there a hottest possible temperature?"). But of course, this is just my opinion and other people might disagree with me. Someone might title a question "The Formation of Double Rainbows," and I probably wouldn't feel the need to edit it despite the fact that I think that it is a sub-optimal title.

It is for these reasons that I think that the original title of the post in question is still the best. "Spin Glass Prince Rupert's Drop" is short, direct, and puts all of the important information on display. "Spin glass Prince Rupert's drop" is pretty good but obfuscates the important information unnecessarily. And the post's current title "Is there a spin glass version of a Prince Rupert's Drop?" is astoundingly bad because it buries all of the important information and wastes a large number of words to do it. It is by no means necessary that all posts have a question for their title: this is a site specifically designed for people to ask questions; we know that they are going to ask a question in the post the title just needs to tell us what the question is going to be about.

Moreover, there is no pressing need for the title to be the whole post. A well-written post will present its question and the motivation for it clearly. Take, for example, the title post of this very thread. It does not follow some of the conventions that have been put forward by other users, but I doubt that most people would find it confusing or unclear. The title clearly states the issue, the first two sentences ask the specific questions, and the final sentence restates those questions in a different way. Titles are important, but the content and structure of posts are vastly more important.

4) Summary - In short, I feel that edits (especially those made by users who do not require approval) should not be made unless its contribution to the post is substantial. Likewise, reverting edits should follow the same rule of thumb. In other words, we should micromanage less and trust the judgment of users more. Additionally, I don't think that there is a compelling reason to enforce "Sentence case" over "Title Case" in post titles since they both have a place and can be used in different circumstances to varying effect.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ A very well reasoned post. I don't agree with most of your main points here, but they are certainly worth thinking about (if nothing else, to reflect on why the site policies are the way they are). This may be something to bring up in Physics Chat sometime for a more extended discussion. $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 8 '15 at 6:25
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ One thing I do want to bring up here: I disagree that "Is there a spin glass version of a Prince Rupert's Drop?" is a bad title. Actually I think it's a very good title, especially compared to the alternative "Spin glass Prince Rupert's drop" (in either capitalization). As an outsider to that field, the latter title is gibberish to me. But the former includes enough normal English context that I get a sense of what kind of question it is, and I can identify "spin glass" and "Prince Rupert's drop" as terms, even without knowing their meanings. IMO that's an important characteristic for a title. $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 8 '15 at 6:30
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Why only edit if the improvement is "substantial"? What is wrong with a slight improvement? We had a edit rejection reason as too minor once, but it was abolished because people couldn't agree on what is too minor. And I think the question title being an actual question, as it is now, is actually the best solution! I don't follow your reasoning that it "wastes a large number of words". A gramatically correct question as a title is, to me, far more pleasant to read than a collection of keywords - that's what the tags are for. $\endgroup$ – ACuriousMind Dec 8 '15 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ That's a really good point that has never occurred to me. I'm a lot more convinced by this argument than by the others. $\endgroup$ – Geoffrey Dec 8 '15 at 23:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ACuriousMind Because a minor improvement to you is likely to be a minor regression to someone else. I think it is better to err on the side of caution and assume that if you can understand the question then other people probably can to. But more importantly, the questioner wrote the question in a certain way, and perhaps the best way to express his specific question is to ask it exactly how he did. $\endgroup$ – Geoffrey Dec 8 '15 at 23:10

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .