When to Capitalize Words for Compass Points

By Mark Nichol

North, south, east, west — when is capitalization best?

Obviously, when the directional term is part of a current or historical proper name — for example, North Dakota and West Germany, respectively — capitalization is nonnegotiable. But many lesser-known geographical designations aren’t as obvious. Here’s a rundown of some examples:

Four of Australia’s seven states and territories — Western Australia, the Northern Territory, South Australia, and New South Wales — include a directional term, but only the latter may seem unequivocally correct. If you’re referring in writing to the western half of Australia (Western Australia, by contrast, constitutes only about one-third of the nation’s land area), say so; to refer simply to “western Australia” in that context might invite an erroneous correction.

Corresponding terms do not necessarily refer to equivalent entities: North Africa is a region comprising numerous countries, while South Africa is a smaller area consisting of the eponymous nation.

Some unofficial divisions have a virtual force of law based on cultural factors; one such example is the concept of Northern California and Southern California, which to many people in the Golden State at least might as well be two distinct jurisdictions.

The distinction is complicated by the notion of Central California, and few people, including Californians, seem to be aware that there’s also an area called Eastern California (hidden from the rest of the state by the north-south mountain range known as the Sierra Nevada and culturally aligned with the neighboring state of Nevada). However, “Western California” is not part of the local lexicon, because the coastal areas and the middle of the state on a north-south axis are the “default” California.

Various parts of Texas have the same type of distinction, though, as with their Californian counterparts, the dividing lines are nebulous. The largest state in the Lower 48 (that’s an unofficial but canonical designation itself) consists of six areas, including West Texas and three other corresponding regions so capitalized, plus Central Texas and the Texas Panhandle (which, counterintuitively, is north of North Texas).

In the United States, regions are often named at least in part for their relative direction: There’s the Southwest, the South (which is actually the southeastern part of the country, but it was named when the territory of the United States extended only halfway across the North American continent), the Pacific Northwest, and so on. (There is no North, however, except in reference to Union during the Civil War.)

These are not governed entities, but they are official designations. However, they should be capitalized only in such contexts; names of compass points in sentences such as “I drove southeast for several hours” or “Have you been to any of the southwestern states?” are not capitalized.

Directional terms in culturally significant phrases such as “the Wild West” and “the Old West” are capitalized, as they are in names of districts and parts of cities: Chicago’s South Side, London’s West End, and the Middle East’s West Bank. Sometimes, a directional term preceding a city name refers to a separate, smaller jurisdiction, such as East Los Angeles; West Los Angeles, meanwhile, is a district of Los Angeles proper.

The world’s two major oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, have no dotted lines marking their exact boundaries, but there are conventions about their extent, and divisional descriptions such as “North Atlantic” and “South Pacific” are official.

When in doubt, look it up, taking care to be sensitive to cultural and regional nuances.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


8 Responses to “When to Capitalize Words for Compass Points”

  • Ray

    Technically, the Texas Panhandle is not north of North Texas; Oklahoma holds that geographic distinction. The Texas Panhandle is, however, further north than is North Texas.

  • D. D. Syrdal

    How about Mid West? Or is it Midwest, Mid-West, midwest…

  • Mark Nichol

    D.D.:

    “Midwest” is equivalent to “Southwest,” “Northeast,” and other regions of the United States.

  • Julie

    Do you say sub-Saharan African or Sub-Saharan Africa?

  • Mark Nichol

    Julie:

    Excellent question. The answer is, both are widely used. I vote for capitalizing Sub because it’s an essential part of the full proper noun.

  • Betsey

    I cannot find a benchmark that explains, without any doubt, whether or not to capitalize the word “state” when used prior to an actual state. For example, the state of Connecticut. I’ve seen the usage of both ‘state’ and ‘State’. It seems most people use the lower case, however, I don’t understand why, if ‘state’ is referring to a specific State and not, for example, several states. (Obviously when it is ‘Connecticut State’ one capitalizes ‘state’)

    Why capitalize the word state only when it follows the actual state? I really want to understand, as this is a constant problem for me when I’m reviewing documents.

    When I research this question, which is often, I get different answers. One grammar site stated that the rule was ‘state of Connecticut’ because ‘state’ preceeded CT. However, the same person proceeded to explain the rule and in her actual explanation she wrote, “For example, in the State of Connecticut…”. Please help!

  • Mark Nichol

    Betsey:

    The Chicago Manual of Style is unequivocal about capitalizing the word state: As with city, capitalize it in a phrase such as “the State of California” only when referring to that government entity. In a sentence like “Have you ever been to the state of California?” no such distinction is necessary (but, then the phrase “the state of” is usually superfluous in such a sentence anyway).

    There is an exception of sorts: Refer to Washington State as such (but not “the State of Washington”) in casual references to distinguish it from Washington, DC.

  • Dana

    It is southern California and northern California because we are one state. Regions are lower case. Please stay home. Californian doesn’t need anymore ignorant transplants. Sincerely, fourth generation California girl.

Leave a comment: