Did you tour the capitol building or the capital building? Do you write with capitol letters or capital letters? Capital and capitol only differ by one vowel, but that doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable. Capital has many meanings, but capitol only has one.
The word capitol is the term for a building in which the legislative body of a government holds official meetings. It comes from the name of the highest Roman temple, the Capitolium (which comes from caput, meaning “head”), also known as the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.
When spelled with a lowercase “c,” capitol can refer to any building occupied by elected officials. But when you spell Capitol with an uppercase “C,” it only refers to the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
You can use capitol (or Capitol) when referring to an actual building, not the city where the building is located. For example:
- The Alabama legislature meets in the state's capitol building.
- The Senate and House of Representatives convene in the U.S. Capitol.
- The area surrounding the U.S. Capitol is known as Capitol Hill.
- The West Virginia State Capitol building and complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The word capital comes from the Latin capitalis, meaning “first” or “principal.” While capitol refers only to a building, capital is much more versatile (and popular) than capitol.
Use capital when referring to:
- capital cities - Sacramento is the capital of California, Washington, D.C. is the capital of the United States of America, and so on
- capital letters - letters written in uppercase form
- capital assets - money or assets that a person or business owns
- capital gains - how much a capital asset has earned when it’s sold
- capital punishment - execution by the state
- a capital idea - the best idea
- “Capital!” - an interjection meaning “wonderful”
Because capital has more uses, you’re more likely to see it — and use it — in writing. For example:
- Atlanta is the capital of the state of Georgia.
- Be sure to use capital letters when writing the name of a corporation.
- I want to open my own salon, but I don't currently have the capital I need to get started.
- I am looking forward to visiting Nashville, which is the capital of Tennessee.
- Taking the train instead of a car is a capital idea!
- Capital! The bookstore is finally open!
Learning the difference between capital and capitol is one thing, but what happens when they appear in the same sentence? The same meanings apply, allowing you to keep your spelling rules intact. For example:
- The governor is seeking to raise capital to fund a major renovation project on the state capitol.
- The eighth grade students traveled to their state's capital where they toured the capitol building and met with legislators.
- My family is planning a trip to the nation's capital this summer. While there, we expect to tour the U.S. Capitol and meet with our congressional representative.
- Be sure to properly use capital letters when addressing a letter to the governor, which will need to be sent to the state's capitol building.
Still not sure which term to use? Try out this trick the next time you’re choosing between them:
- capitol has an “o,” like “office”
- capital has an “a,” like “alphabet”
It’s really that simple. Use capitol when referring to a physical building; use capital in every other situation.