When proofreading or editing documents, we often find that writers are confused about when to capitalize these terms. Here are some rules to follow.
Capitalize north, south, east, west, and derivative words when they designate definite regions or are an integral part of a proper name.
- in the North
- down South
- the West Coast
- the Eastern Seaboard
- the Deep South
Do not capitalize these words when they merely indicate direction or general location.
- Many waterskiers have relocated from the Northeast to the South.
- BUT: We maintain a slalom course in the south of France.
- OR: Go north on I-95 and then west on Route 110.
Capitalize such words as Northerner, Southerner, and Midwesterner.
Capitalize such words as northern, southern, eastern, and western when they refer to the people in a region or to their political, social, or cultural activities. Do not capitalize these words when they merely indicate general location or refer to the geography or climate of the region.
- Eastern bankers, but the eastern half of Colorado
- Southern hospitality, but southern temperatures
- Western civilization, but westerly winds
- the Northern vote, but a northern winter
- The Northern states did not vote as they were expected. (Political activities.)
- The drought has ended in the northern states. (Climate.)
- My sales territory takes in most of the southeastern states. (General location.)
- She was Southeastern Champion twice in a row.
NOTE: When terms like western region and southern district are used to name organizational units within a company, capitalize them.
- The Western Region (referring to a part of the national sales staff) reports that sales are 12 percent over budget for the first six months.
When words like northern, southern, eastern, and western precede a place name, they are not ordinarily capitalized, because they merely indicate general location within a region. However, when these words are actually part of the place name, they must be capitalized.
- northern New Jersey, western Massachusetts
- Northern Ireland, Western Australia
NOTE: Within certain regions it is not uncommon for many who live there to capitalize the adjective because of the special importance they attach to the regional designation. Thus people who live in southern California may prefer to write Southern California.
Source: The Gregg Reference Manual