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I have an ELL question; but the Stack Exchange format obliges me to write a title not shorter than 15 characters and not longer than 150 characters.

So, how do I write a good title?


Link to the main answer and Link to the TL;DR version for your ease of use.

  • For anyone interested, here is a list of questions about title discussions on ELL. – M.A.R. Sep 9 '15 at 18:38
  • 2
    This is an excellent guide, and very useful to new SE users. We have a Resources post for english-learning resources, but I'm starting to think it would be good to have one for "using ELL" resources... This post, the Details, please post, a couple others... What do you think? Would you be interested in helping compile a list of these post with me? – WendiKidd Sep 25 '15 at 6:35
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1 Introduction

Titles give a first impression of your post. Good titles bring positive attention to your question, and you will get it answered sooner; more upvotes will follow etc. Bad titles don't allow your question to get the attention it deserves. (Fewer upvotes, less likelihood of getting an answer etc.) Very bad titles might get you lots of attention, but they're not likely to get a positive response from the community. (If not edited soon enough, downvotes will pile up etc.)

Writing a good title is an art. The best titles don't adhere to a prescriptive and arbitrary set of rules, but benefit from a spoonful of the author's creativity. However, with a specific set of rules, we can avoid most of the bad titles we get in ELL, and write decent enough titles.

2 Worst title-writing practices

Below is a small list of most frequently observed worst practices used in writing question titles in Stack Exchange. If one uses these, they can assure their question will get downvotes. Do not use any of these if you're legitimately asking a question. Luckily, these are not frequently seen on ELL.

2.1 All-caps:

HAVING A BROKEN CAPS-LOCK KEY IS EQUIVALENT TO SHOUTING IN THE INTERNET. If you take a look back at the last sentence you read, you will admit it looks horrid. This hasn't been observed a lot in ELL, but will definitely be observed in the future. It's known to be one of the most eminent causes for downvotes in Stack Exchange:

WHAT IS THE MEANING OF "OBNOXIOUS" IN THIS PASSAGE?
What is the meaning of "obnoxious" in this passage?

2.2 Adding "help", "please" or similar fluff:

Your title must stick to the point. As much as politeness is encouraged in any human interactions, you'll never see a newspaper headline with "please", unless it is about "please". It's pointless to add "help" too. While many are here to help ELLers, writing a "help", "halp!" or similar raises the alarms that your question isn't a good one. (Probably because most people doing that in SE are the ones whose homework deadline is almost due.)

Please tell me what's the difference between these two sentences?
What is wrong in this sentence? Help please thank you!
Difference between "could" and "could have" in a conditional
Why would the preposition "in" in this utterance render it ungrammatical?

3 Bad title-writing practices

Unfortunately, these have been noticed frequently in question titles in ELL to date. These aren't as bad as "all-caps"; however, they turn searches into nightmares, and usually stop your question from being the center of attention. They're unhealthy for ELL in the long run.

A partially appropriate simile would be poisoning yourself vs. overeating (it's a bit stretched though). While the former can kill you immediately, the latter isn't healthy as well, and should be avoided.

3.1 The Generic title effect:

Do you remember when Nokia's tune was one of the most common ringtones? Back then, when cell phones rang, and the ringtone was the Nokia tune, a dozen people hilariously checked their mobile to see if it was theirs.

The same holds for the question titles. If you want people to find, recognize, and identify your question more easily, you need to avoid the generic title. Questions with generic titles look less interesting, and thus garner fewer views and upvotes. They affect the site's health in a long run, since searches turn up less relevant results.

A search is worth a thousand words. This is currently the biggest "title" problem in ELL.

How to know if your question title is suffering the effect: Answer the questions below. If the answer is generally a "no", you perhaps need a better title. (Note that this would also help with detecting other bad practices.)

  • Do a search. Is there another question with a title similar to yours? (Say, do 4 or 5 words exist in both titles?)
  • Read your title again. Can you guess what the question will be asking from the title?

Answer the questions below. If the answer is generally a "yes", you perhaps need a better title.

  • Does your title contain the words "what" and either the pairs "grammatically" and "correct" or "meaning" and "difference"?
  • If your title is a question, imagine it as a standalone question. Is it a yes-no question?
  • Does your title include a demonstrative determiner (such as "this" or "that") that refers to something in your question's body?

Which is grammatically correct and why?
Is this sentence right?
"My car's exhaust" vs. "My car exhaust": Which would avoid ambiguity better?
Would using "jar" and "soap" together be correct usage?

3.2 Unduly or inadequately detailed titles

Leave unnecessary information out of the title. The title needs to contain the most important info in your question, and does not necessarily need academic, correct and comprehensive grammar use. Think of newspaper articles. They use different grammar. They omit articles, use to for future tense, omit be etc. Of course, especially when you're asking a question in your title, or attempting to write a sentence, newspaper grammar is discouraged. But if your title is a long noun phrase, omitting the articles is a good option to consider.

This is a beautifully structured analysis on what parts of a webpage users pay attention to most. If you manage to get your message across in you title, without being excessively detailed in doing it, your reader is most likely to be interested in what you write.

Body of the question:

Today I saw this sentence in this article:

Although pictures of the 20 August brawl have long been circulated on social media, West Point did not confirm it took place until recently, the paper reports.

I know that I can revise this sentence to this one:

The paper reports that although pictures of the 20 August brawl have long been circulated on social media, West Point did not confirm it took place until recently.

Is there any difference in meaning between those sentences? I'm guessing there's an emphasis difference but I have no clues.

Is there a difference in meaning between the two sentences in which some speech is reported?
Difference in meaning
Will rearranging clauses change the implied meaning?

3.3 Tag-titles:

Should questions include "tags" in their titles? The consensus is "no". It's easy to find out if you're including them in the title: Anything in the form of

- [Question]

or similar forms is discouraged, because the page title automatically begins with the most common tag the question is tagged with.

Grammar - why can't "be" be with "gonna" in this form of sentence?
Why can't "be" be followed by "gonna"?

4 Practices for writing better titles

There are no strict limits for the form a good title can take. Thus, many tips for writing a good title for an essay, question on SE etc. are usually not really useful and objective, but general and vague. "Be creative", while a correct and general piece of advice, isn't really useful as its usually followed by a "how?" response from the reader.

Hence, I needed to take a different approach. I instead analyzed what the most common title-writing practices on ELL are, and what correlation those have with the question content, and came up with a list of tips on how to improve the existing ones, and how to write the title you have in mind in a better way:

4.1 Use quotation marks when you quote:

Your title is the first thing other people see when you post your question. Being unambiguous is necessary, as you're giving a first impression and presenting a summary of your query.

Thus, you have to make words said by other people stand out; and separate them from your own words. You can't use blockquotes in the title, and for consistency, the best you can do is to use quotation marks: ""

between thumb, forefinger and middle finger - why no articles?
if not for something
"between thumb, forefinger and middle finger" - why no articles?
What does "if not for <something>" mean?
"I like to be loved" vs. "I like being loved"

4.2 Your title should contain original words, not just one quote:

Your title should make sense on its own. Would "Happy birthday to you!" be a good ELL title? No, because it doesn't look like a title at all. Furthermore, we can't know what your real question is or is about. While quotes are a good way to write a unique title, a very good way, when you're not being specific about what you're asking your title could be a bad one.

pushed on something
2005 Chevy hubs
What does it mean if someone is "pushed on <something>"?
What are "2005 Chevy hubs"?

4.3 Your title should be separate from your question's body:

A common misconception while writing titles in SE sites is that people think they're going to begin their question with their title, and end it in question's body. The title of your question is its summary, and isn't related to the sequence of words in the body whatsoever. Misunderstanding the titles' purpose may very well result in people disdaining your question.

In other words, if your main question is in your title, it should also be in the body.

What's the part of speech of "no"?

We have no choice.

What's the part of speech of "no"?
I came across this sentence:

We have no choice.

I wonder what the part of speech of "no" is. I know that 'have' is the main verb and 'choice' is the direct object. I would appreciate it if you point me to books or articles about this so I could read more.

What does "tossing waters" mean?

Note that I put this here as it relates to the philosophy of titles and what they are and should be; however, it mostly relates to how you formulate your question's body in practice.

4.4 (Especially and ) - If you're comparing two phrases or words, your title should also contain what aspect you intend to compare:

So you want to compare X and Y. That's great. But X and Y have differences in meaning, pronunciation, usage etc. many of which could be dialectal. By not giving specific info about the core of your confusion, your title wouldn't play its role as well as it should. In other words, you should express what you want to do with X & Y in your title.

difference between "despite" and "notwithstanding"
Difference between "underlying" and "underneath"
What are the semantic or syntactic differences between "underlying" and "underneath"?
Possible difference in meaning between "despite" and "notwithstanding"

4.5 If you're comparing how two aspects or tenses modify a sentence's meaning, you should include the varying phrase in the title:

Let's fight broad titles. They're seldom a good representation of the question, they make searches harder, and all they are good for is adding to the obscurity of your question (which isn't good at all).

Some questions on ELL look like yours: You want to know what the difference (usually in meaning) would be if you used a different tense or aspect. If so, you should make it more specific/closer to being unique, for which the easiest way by far is quoting, and quoting the phrase you're trying to change. Take a look at these examples, which should clarify what I'm intending to tell you.

Difference between Simple past and past passive tense
“The police officer caught red” vs. “The police officer was caught red”
Possible semantic differences between “The police officer caught red” and “The police officer was caught red”

4.6 A great boost to titles is forming them as a question:

The best titles are the ones that send the message of the question across in a few words. Surprisingly, they can be very common words, and not some magical voodoo.

Every question has a heart; it asks about certain things:

  • Possibility: "Can?", "Could?"
  • Advice: "Should?"
  • Reason: "Why?"
  • Mechanism: "How?"
  • Time: "When?"
    .
    .
    .

While there can always be good titles made out of phrases, writing the title as a question is a very big boost to the quality of the title.

Identifying the reduced relative clause in a complex sentence
How do I identify the reduced relative clause?
Can I identify the reduced relative clause completely with meaning-originated deductions?
Should I identify the reduced relative clause just from the meaning?

4.7 Your title should consist more than just the context/subject of your question:

While titles and lecture topics look close, they're not the same. Your title is a good one if it's asking the main question or the phrase that relates to the content of the answer. And those two are mostly covered in other subsections. But your title shouldn't be the "subject" or "context" of your question. That'd give inadequate data about your question - something we want to avoid.

Sentence meaning
the order of adjectives in English
Does "hardened bosom" mean 'lack of pity'?
"curly new" vs. "new curly" -- Grammaticality or semantic differences

4.8 (Especially ) - If your question is about meaning in a context, your title would greatly benefit from a general mention of the context:

Most of the ELL answerers are not specialized or interested in answering all of the questions on ELL. By localizing your question's title, and making it stand out among the other ordinary ones, you're likely to get the audience you need (faster).

For instance, someone who has a medical background, while browsing ELL, will naturally be attracted to a question with "in a medical context" in its title.

How has "take off" evolved to take its new meaning?
How has "take off" evolved to accept a new meaning in the aviation industry?

4.9 A good title almost has all the (unique) keywords in the question (except quotes):

This isn't as direct a piece of advice as others are. It is rather a way to check if your title is a good one or not. 1

  • What makes your question distinctive from others?
  • Are most, if not all the "special" words existent in your title?

Are questions you can answer to speculate, though very crudely, how good your question's title is. This would specially work well mostly with titles that are phrases.

5 See also

  1. How do I write a good title?
  2. Should questions include "tags" in their titles?
  3. Should question titles be phrased as questions? (A straw poll)
  4. How do we write good question titles?

1: If still in doubt, you can always freely ping and ask me in ELL's Cabin.


Image sources:

The all-caps beauty
Red cross
Green checkmark
Unhappy face
Happy face
The attention chart
Very happy face

  • Here is one example where being too specific in the title led to a lot of confusion in the answers, because some folks didn't read the whole question. ell.stackexchange.com/q/39222/9161 A good title is very much an art. – ColleenV Sep 9 '15 at 21:34
  • @ColleenV: Can you clarify? I'm not really seeing how the title is too specific, or more than one answer that missed the mark. – Nathan Tuggy Sep 9 '15 at 21:50
  • The problem was that the real question was the last line of the body, but a lot of folks got hung up explaining 49-er specifically because it happened to have a meaning that say, 53-er wouldn't have had. @NathanTuggy – ColleenV Sep 10 '15 at 3:49
  • I agree with you. In fact, nicely written questions do help getting this site on the top of the SERPs. This way, it'd be helpful not only to the ELL users but netizens across the globe. In my SEO practice, meta title/description is of utmost importance. – Maulik V Sep 10 '15 at 4:47
  • @Maulik Yup. In fact, we have some meta posts that indicate how bad titles on ELL are. I believe some of that is because of lack of teaching. BTW, Maulik I guess you aren't featuring this? :/ I was hoping to see community input on this question. – M.A.R. Sep 10 '15 at 6:44
  • I'm too new to act this fast! @inɒzɘmɒЯ.A.M will discuss with J.R. or Wendi and put this forward for sure. :) Good job, keep it up! – Maulik V Sep 10 '15 at 6:48
  • I'm not asking you to reformat - this is just a suggestion for the future. In my experience folks respond better when you give them suggestions of what they should do, rather than what they shouldn't do. I would put the "Dos" first and the "Don'ts" second (or leave them off entirely). A lot of the "Don'ts " can actually be made into "Dos". For example, "Capitalize and punctuate your titles correctly to make them more readable." instead of "DON'T USE ALL CAPS". – ColleenV Sep 10 '15 at 18:38
  • I believe almost every do can become a don't and vice versa; I wanted to make this most comprehensible for ELLers. I just started to write and this is how it turned out. @Colleen I just would love your edits. :) – M.A.R. Sep 10 '15 at 18:48
  • This is a good, detailed answer but it's far far too long. Users who are short on time, language expertise, and patience will find it difficult to find what they are looking for. – Mari-Lou A Aug 21 '18 at 8:24
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Quick Reference Card for Writing Good Titles

(summarized from the more detailed answer)

Put words from other sources in "quotation marks"

Unhappy Face between thumb, forefinger and middle finger - why no articles?
Happy Face "between thumb, forefinger and middle finger" - Why no articles?

Write titles that are complete thoughts

Unhappy Face pushed on something
Happy Face What does it mean if someone is "pushed on <something>"?

Write titles that summarize your question and are separate from the body of your post

Unhappy Face What's the part of speech of "no"?

We have no choice.

Happy Face What's the part of speech of "no"?
I came across this sentence:

We have no choice.

I wonder what the part of speech of "no" is. I know that 'have' is the main verb and 'choice' is the direct object. I would appreciate it if you point me to books or articles about this so I could read more.

When asking about the difference between two words or phrases, include what aspect you are interested in

Unhappy Face Difference between "underlying" and "underneath"
Happy Face Possible difference in meaning between "despite" and "notwithstanding"

When comparing how two aspects or tenses modify a sentence's meaning, include the varying phrase in the title

Unhappy Face Difference between Simple past and past passive tense
Happy Face Difference in meaning between “The police officer caught red-handed” and “The police officer was caught red-handed”

Write your title as a question when possible

Unhappy Face Identifying the reduced relative clause in a complex sentence
Happy Face How do I identify the reduced relative clause in a complex sentence?

Write titles that are different from other questions' titles

Unhappy Face Is this grammatically correct?
Happy Face Can we write "much more superior"?

  • I thought it might be nice to have a TL;DR version - I've made it a community wiki. – ColleenV Sep 10 '15 at 12:24
  • 1
    (づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ – M.A.R. Sep 10 '15 at 12:25
  • I wanted to write a TL;DR myself, but it seems you've pulled it off well. :) – M.A.R. Sep 10 '15 at 12:26
6

Avoid putting something critical to your question in the title of the question unless you add it to the body of the question as well.

In other words, make sure that someone can read your whole question (without going back to the title) and still fully understand what you are asking.

  • Don't use the snippet of text you are asking us to analyze as the title of your question, without putting it in the body of the question.

  • Don't ask your main question as the title of your question, unless you repeat the question in the body of the question.

For example, this is the wrong way to use a title:

enter image description here

This is better:

enter image description here

Similarly, this should be avoided:

enter image description here

This is better:

enter image description here

Note: if you want to start a new line, add two blank spaces at the end of the previous line. Otherwise, your two lines will be displayed on the same line:

The farmer in the dell. The farmer on the dell.

1

The title should BE the question. Example -

Does pronouncing "the" as "thee" change its meaning?

Read on if you are still interested.

With all due respect to the answers above, this is a site for English Language Learners. For us people long prose answers are hard to decipher. We are already struggling with the language.

A more pertinent question would be -

"How can we keep meta-ELL questions simple, and answers simpler? What would be the guidelines? After all, ELL is for learners, not experts.".

  • 5
    Unfortunately, the problem and the solution just can't fit in a small answer like this. Many bad titles are "is this grammatically correct?" and while that's a question, it's not clear at all. – M.A.R. Sep 24 '15 at 6:08
  • I know. It's heart-breaking to see this paradox. There are people willing to help and people eager to learn, but the medium, English is itself being taught, without any non-verbal feedback and English gets in the way. – Prashant Sep 24 '15 at 6:18
  • Sometimes it's okay to put the question in the title; however, when that happens, the question should also be restated in the body of the question. People shouldn't have to refer to the title of the question to figure out what is being asked. – J.R. Aug 15 '18 at 15:07
  • As I see it, sometimes questions are very hard to formulate correctly for ELLers. That's why they are ELLers. I agree in part with this comment. Not with simple answers because there are times when the answer to a seemingly simple question is complex. – Lambie Aug 17 '18 at 15:55

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