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.