We have noted before that writers love to overuse capital letters. There seems to be something so magical about putting random nouns, verbs, and yes, even adjectives in upper case that normally prudent writers throw all caution to the wind. Staid and sober essays become All Capitals, All The Time.
So what’s the harm? I hear you ask. Precisely this: when the restraint of formal written English is thrown away for a carnival atmosphere in which anything goes, the persuasive value of the content plummets. You’ll recall that readers—even those who aren’t grammar mavens—have an excellent ability to detect when grammar rules are being broken, and bad grammar drives away clients and customers.
The lesson, then, is to show restraint when using capital letters. Specifically, today’s lesson is about using upper case when referencing compass directions—an error I have been noticing more and more often online, especially when content writers present driving directions to their business locations.
Cardinal Rules for the Cardinal Directions
The four primary points on a compass—east, north, south, and west—are known as the cardinal directions. Between them, we will find the ordinal or intercardinal directions, such as southwest, west-northwest, and an infinite number of other descriptors.
Some writers take the simplest approach and capitalize all compass directions willy-nilly. We have a couple words for writers like this: “lazy” is one. So is “wrong.” English actually has some fairly concise rules about capitalizing compass directions. I can boil them down to a list of three:
- Capitalize a direction or a phrase containing a direction if any other word in the same place would be capitalized in ordinary usage because it’s a proper noun; the first word in a sentence; a key word in a title or headline; the name of a book, periodical, or other work of art; the name of an organization; an abstract concept; or something similar worthy of capitalization.
- Capitalize a direction or phrase if it’s a widely recognized place name that would be identified as such on a map.
- Otherwise, leave the direction or phrase in lower case.
Note, in particular, that compass points used in isolation shouldn’t be capitalized.
Let’s examine a few helpful examples, shall we, beginning with those where capitalization is appropriate :
- Northwest Territories. A recognized geographical region
- the North Atlantic States
- East St. Louis
- the West Bank
- South Pacific. The name of a theatrical play, but this is also a conventional geographical region that would be capitalized anyway
- North Dakota
- North by Northwest. The name of a movie
- The Beautiful South. The name of a musical group
- the Deep South. A recognized geographical region
- the North Pole
- South Korea
- the East Coast
- West Elm Street
- the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
- the Midwest
- the Northwest Passage
Compare those with these instances where no capitalization should be used:
- the south side of Chicago
- north of Main Street
- north by northwest. A compass direction
- “I saw the geese fly south for the winter.”
- “Travel north for 12 miles, then take the second exit.”
Capital Punishment for Misusing Directional Adjectives
Each of the compass directions has an associated adjective, too: think southern as the counterpart to south. Surprisingly enough—because we’re used to English having frequent exceptions to the general rules of grammar—directional adjectives follow the same guidelines we use for compass directions. That means we will most often use lower case unless special circumstances apply.
Once again, our examples start off with a few cases where capitalization is required:
- Northern Hemisphere. A definite geographical location
- Flint Northwestern High School. A proper noun as well as a conventional place name
- the Eastern Bloc. Capitalized as an organization—the group of European nations under Soviet influence during the Cold War
- Northwestern University
- Western Australia. Capitalized as the name of the Australian state which has Perth as its capital. The word “western” wouldn’t be capitalized if one were talking of the left half of the continent
- Western Union. A business name is a proper noun
- Western civilization. A tricky example. This usage ultimately derives from “the West” being used as an abstract concept for the shared values, history, and culture of western Europe, the Americas, and Australia
- Southern cooking
- Middle Eastern oilfields
Examples where capital letters should be avoided include:
- The northern face of Mt. Everest
- country-western music
- southern West Virginia. A deliberately tricky example. “West Virginia” is, of course, capitalized as an official state name, but the word “southern” is a mere directional reference and should not be capitalized
- northern Italy
- southern California
- the eastern seaboard
- the southern Pacific Ocean. No capitalization for “southern” by the same reasoning as the last entry; contrast with South Pacific earlier in these lists
- an eastern wind
- The northern lights
Moving Beyond the Compass
The same principles for capitalizing directional and geographic references work just fine as we move beyond compass directions. In most cases, you will capitalize only when referring to a well-defined and well-known place name. So, if we wanted to test how the word “central” is used, we would use uppercase to refer to “California’s Central Valley,” but we’d opt for lowercase to say that “the tornado watch for central Illinois expires at 7 PM.”
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