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When to Capitalize Directional Words

February 12, 2015

Troublesome Words...

You know how most people have trouble spelling certain words? The word that always gets me is vacuum. I can never remember if there is one C or two Cs. (It's one—but I just double-checked in my dictionary to make sure!) This can happen with many issues in English: spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc. Some rules are so troublesome to remember that not only do English language learners frequently mix them up, native speakers do too!

One such case that I find particularly tricky for myself and my students is directional words. There are so many rules about when to capitalize or lowercase these words that I find myself looking them up again and again in my style guide. I hope that, by blogging about them today, the rules will stick with me as well as with you and your students! Note that the rules may vary in different regions of the world, and even in different fields within the same region.

Note: This post is based on the popular North American style guide The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition.

To the West or to the west? Western or western?

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, sections 8.45–46, you don't normally capitalize directional words when referring to direction or location. You should write He lives to the west of the church, for example, and She lives in the western part of Canada.

  • a northern climate
  • an easterly wind
  • toward the south
  • to the east
  • in the southwestern part
  • an eastward direction

These words usually do get capitalized when they describe a region of the world or of a country, but there are some exceptions.

  • the East, the North, the South, the West (of a country)
  • northern, southern, eastern, western (parts of a country)
  • the East/Eastern (referring to the Orient), the West/Western (referring to the Occident or the Western Hemisphere)
  • the East Coast, the West Coast
  • Northern, Southern (in American Civil War contexts)
  • Northern California, the Middle East, the Pacific Northwest, Southeast Asia

Tips for Students

There are some patterns to make the capitalization of directional words easier for your learners to remember.

1. Directions (compass points) are not capitalized.

  • Should I go north or south?
  • I traveled in a northeasterly direction.
  • to the east
  • southwest-facing

2. The article the usually indicates that capitalization is required, except if the preposition to is used (in most cases).

  • He lives in the East.
  • He lives to the east.

3. Country/region names are almost always capitalized if they are followed by another noun.

  • North America
  • West Africa
  • the South of France
  • Eastern Europe

4. In American Civil War contexts, always use capital letters.

  • the North, Northern, a Northerner
  • the South, Southern, a Southerner

5. For terms denoting the area or culture of Asia (the Orient) and Europe (the Occident) or the Western Hemisphere, use capital letters.

  • in the West, Western society
  • in the East, Eastern culture

Do you have any other questions about directional words? Ask me in the Comments section below!


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Comments (11)

Lindsey (Guest)

Would east Forty-third be capitalized?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Lindsey, great question. Directions in street names are always capitalized. Most style guides would say 'East Forty-third' and others would write 'East Forty-Third.'

Steve (Guest)

Hi Tanya,

Do you say The beach faces West, or west?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Steve, you can say 'The beach faces west.' We usually don't capitalize general directions.

Nasima (Guest)

She lives in the South-West or Southwest part of the city?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Nasima, most style guides would write it this way:
She lives in the southwest part of the city.
('southwestern' would also work)

Larry (Guest)

How would you use Directional Words in a business title? For example, would you say 'Mid-West Regional Manager' or 'Mid-Western Regional Manager'? This question came up from one of my students, and I couldn't explain it clearly. What I suggested was to use 'Mid-Western' as it is an adjective describing 'Manager'. However, that being said, I've seen it used on business cards as 'Mid-West Regional Manager' or 'East Regional Manager'. Are there any set rules for this situation?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

That's a great question, Larry. First of all, you're correct that most companies would capitalize the directional word in a job title. Secondly, you can tell your students that it depends on the company—some companies choose to use a noun form (that's acting as an adjective; e.g., Midwest Regional Manager) and some use the adjective form (e.g., Midwestern Regional Manager). As far as I know, there aren't any rules for this situation. I've seen both forms used, but I agree with your instincts— I'd say the adjective form is probably a bit more common.

Bren (Guest)

do you capitalize 'southeast asian? ' (as opposed to Southeast Asia)

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Bren,

Yes, most style guides recommend capitalizing Southeast Asia and Southeast Asian. Other common terms for people or adjectives from specific regions include North American, Middle Eastern, and South African. However, most general regions wouldn't get capitalization (southern/southerner, northwestern/northwestener, midwest/midwesterner, etc.).

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