Capitalization rules seem like they can be all over the map. In the case of writing direction words (north, south, east, and west), that's literally the case! So when are directions capitalized? Take a look at these quick tips for deciding when to capitalize directions, when to avoid capitalizing them and when the answer isn't quite so simple.
When writing directions, it seems like they should be capitalized. And they are — in specific situations. Check out the instances when capitalizing a direction word is the grammatically correct thing to do.
If you've read about Southern California or the East Coast, you know that direction words are capitalized in these cases. But that's because those regions are specific, well-known areas. Other examples of well-known geographic areas include:
- the West Coast
- the South of France
- the Pacific Northwest
- the Middle East
- the North and South armies of the American Civil War
These regions are proper nouns. You can tell if an area is well-known if you don't need any more details to describe it. For example, if you tell people that you live in "the deep South," they would likely know that you mean the area that includes Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia in the U.S.
The same rule applies for specific regions when you add -ern onto the end of a direction. This suffix makes the direction an adjective, and when it describes a specific region, it should be capitalized. The direction word makes it a proper noun.
- the Southern States
- the Eastern Seaboard
- Northern Ireland
- the Western Hemisphere
Note that the common nouns "states," "seaboard" and "hemisphere" become proper nouns when you add their direction words. "Northern Ireland" is part of the United Kingdom, unlike "northern Ireland," which is the north part of the Republic of Ireland and not part of Northern Ireland at all. Capitalizing these phrases helps to clarify what you're talking about.
Another time to capitalize direction words is when you're describing habits, practices or activities from a specific culture. When a direction word is associated with that culture, you capitalize it. For example:
- Eastern philosophy (philosophy from the Eastern Hemisphere)
- Western medicine (medicine from the Western Hemisphere)
- Southern hospitality (hospitality from the American South)
- Midwestern nice (niceness from the American Midwest)
The nouns after the capitalized direction words aren't capitalized but are still specific to that region. Changing the direction word in front of each word changes its meaning, as each one means something specific.
If you're describing general directions or ideas rather than a specific location, you don't need to capitalize the direction words. Keep reading for the times when you don't need to capitalize your directions
Directing someone in the north, south, east, or west direction doesn't require capitalization. In these cases, you're telling somewhere where to go or where something is located, not talking about a specific place. For example:
- Head east until you see a fork in the road.
- The birds are flying south for the winter.
- The settlers moved west for better opportunities.
- You'll find the mill just a few miles north of the farm.
Giving someone directions or describing the direction of an object is not capitalized. If you capitalized the word south in "The birds are flying South for the winter," the reader may assume the birds are flying to the American South, not necessarily in the southern direction.
While locations like West Virginia have direction words right in their name, places that aren't commonly described with direction words aren't capitalized. Chances are, if you're only using the direction word to be more descriptive and not to talk about a specific region, you don't need to capitalize it. Check out these examples of general geographic regions:
- My family is from the east side of town.
- I love vacationing in southern Italy.
- The Grand Canyon is in western Arizona.
- It's much colder in the northern part of the country.
Like with compass directions, these directions describe where something is generally located. They're not describing specific regions, so you don't need to capitalize them.
Describing people from a region is a situation where you need to consult your style guide. The AP style guide, for example, requires words like Southerner and Midwesterner to be capitalized. However, the Chicago Manual of Style prefers to keep southerner and midwesterner in lowercase. If you're not using a specific style guide in your writing, it's up to your personal preference.
Capitalizing directions isn't as tricky as it looks. Now that you know when you capitalize the words north, south, east, and west, as well as northern, southern, eastern, and western, you're well on your way to grammar perfection! Keep the lesson going with these special capitalization cases that can help you in your writing.