When to Capitalize Directions

There is a general rule on when to capitalize directions and regions, but it can get a little confusing when you actually put it into practice. So, in this post, we’ll introduce the basic rule and go though a number of different examples of putting it to use.

The general rule to follow is to use lowercase when referring to compass directions and to capitalize when referring to specific regions.

Compass Directions

Compass directions and the terms that are derived from them (south, southern) are lowercased when they are referring to direction or location. For example,

  • The thunderstorm will head east across the state.
  • If you drive five miles north, you will find my house.
  • The northern half of the country is colder than the southern half.
  • Settlers decided to move west.

Regions

do-you-capitalize-directionsRegional terms can sometimes be tricky because they are often based on the points of a compass, but they are treated differently for capitalization purposes. Regional terms, when they are generally accepted as proper names for an area, are capitalized. For example,

  • The North defeated the South in the American Civil War.
  • The East Coast has a much different culture than the West Coast.
  • Settlers decided to explore the West.

There can be some confusion when you are trying to figure out what exactly you are referring to in the sentence, a direction or a region. When you are not sure, look at your sentence and decide if you are, in essence, just giving someone directions to a location or if you are talking about a specific place. You can often, but not always, do this by looking to see if there is an article (a, an, or the) in front of the word in question. For example, “going south” is not the same thing as “going to the South.” Or, in the case of our above examples, settlers “moving west” is different than settlers “exploring the West.”

Another tricky one is Eastern and Western medicine. Should it be “eastern medicine” or “Eastern medicine?” Well, I would argue that the “east” and “west” should be capitalized in these cases because they are referring to the ways in which regions, and also cultures, practice medicine. The West uses Western medicine, and the East uses Eastern medicine.

Applying This to People

So, we know that we are supposed to capitalize “the South,” but what about someone who is from the South? Are they are “southerner” or a “Southerner?” This just depends on what style to which you are referring. AP Style says it should be capitalized while the Chicago Style Manual says it should be lowercased.

To sum up,

  • Use lowercase when referring to directions on a compass.
    • Drive south for five miles.
    • The storm is heading east.
  • Capitalize regional terms when they refer to a commonly accepted proper name of an area.
    • Missouri is in the Midwest.
    • I am from the Northeast.

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