When to Capitalize Words for Points of the Compass

By Mark Nichol

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When should you write north, and when is North appropriate? How about southern, or Southern? This post outlines the recommendations for when to use uppercase letters for words referring to cardinal directions, and when to employ lowercase letters.

Many geographical designations include north, south, east, or west, or combined forms such as northwest, as part of their names. When these are official locations labeled on maps, they are always styled with initial capitalization (unless, of course, the map styles some or all labels with all uppercase letters). Examples include “North America,” “South Africa,” “West Virginia,” and “East St. Louis.”

However, references in narrative text (fiction or nonfiction) are not always straightforward. Here are some guidelines:

The belligerents in the American Civil War are sometimes identified as “the North” and “the South,” but a reference to an occupant of the corresponding region would be treated as northerner or southerner, and general references to a location to one direction or another from a given location are properly lowercase (“I drove west for ten miles”; “Attitudes in the eastern part of the state are more traditional”).

However, cultural references are treated as proper names, as in a comment alluding to the relative homogeneity of North America and Europe or the corresponding mind-set of Asia: “In the West, medical treatment tends to be allopathic”; “It is among the oldest of the Eastern philosophies.”

Confusingly, some unofficial regional designations with longstanding distinctions, such as “Northern California” and “the South of France,” are capitalized, while such simple descriptions as “western New York State” and “southern Africa” (as opposed to the name of the nation of South Africa) are treated generically.

As the name of the genre in various media that pertains to the settling of the United States beyond the Mississippi River, western is not capitalized. However, by convention, the first word in “Eastern Europe” is capitalized in a Cold War context. Meanwhile, a midwesterner is from the Midwest.

Because of the unpredictability and inconsistency of treatment of such words, it’s best for writers to consult a geographically oriented resource; exhaustive (and exhausting) lists of examples are widely available online and in print.

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1 Response to “When to Capitalize Words for Points of the Compass”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “When to Capitalize Words for Points of the Compass”.
    This indicates to me something about the mathematical and geographical names for the prominent points of the compass:
    N, E, W, S, and NE, SE, SW, NW, and
    Yes, these always should be written in “all capitals”, just like U.S.A., U.K., N.S.W., P.E.I., D.C., D.F., A.C.T., UCLA, UTEP, UNCC, and so forth.

    It should also be mentioned that to go along with “Eastern Europe”, there have always been “Western Europe”, “Southern Europe”, “Northern Europe, and “Northwestern Europe”.
    Note that Northern Europe covers Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, and a huge expanse of Russia, so this is not all Scandinavian territory.

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