GrammarPhile Blog

North, South, West, East … Capitalizing Can Be a Beast

Posted by Terri Porter   Apr 23, 2015 6:00:00 PM

Feeling locompassst? Rudderless? Unsure which way to turn? Unfortunately, we can’t help you find your way. We are, after all, a proofreading site. BUT … we can offer some direction on directions — specifically, whether to capitalize them.

At the most basic level, the standard advice is to lowercase north, south, east and west when used as compass directions and to capitalize them when they are used as part of a proper noun or adjective or refer to regions or geographic areas. So:

  • North Carolina is north of South Carolina and east of West Virginia.
  • The Rocky Mountains are west of Denver.
  • The East Coast was slammed with another storm yesterday.
  • They want to retire in the Southwest in a few years.

Easy enough to remember, right? The tricky part is how to navigate related words such as northern, southern, eastern and western. We could tell you to look it up, but the rules in the go-to general style guides — AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) — conflict in some instances.

AP capitalizes these terms when they refer to a region or the people from that region, but not references to part of a region. CMOS, on the other hand, says to capitalize such terms only when they refer to places, not to people from those places … except in certain instances. Here’s what we end up with:

Southern accent southern* accent
northern Plains northern plains
Midwesterner midwesterner
Western states western states

*CMOS would capitalize Southern and Southerner only in American Civil War contexts.

To make matters worse, both style guides say to capitalize references to well-recognized or popular places (e.g., South Side of Chicago, Northern Ireland, Southeast Asia). The problem is, what constitutes “well-recognized or popular” beyond widely known examples such as these?

For instance, should “southern California” be lowercase? Until its 16th edition, CMOS thought so. And if you don’t live in the area, would you recognize “South Texas” as a popular description of the region around San Antonio?

No wonder directions are so confusing. Stop the car! If your current map isn’t cutting it — or Siri is taking you on the scenic route when you specifically told her “get me there, stat!” — it’s time for some new navigation. In this case, we at like to rely on the straightforward approach in the Gregg Reference Manual.

In short, it says to capitalize northern, southern, eastern, western and related words when they refer to the PEOPLE in a region or what they DO (i.e., their political, cultural or social activities) or are part of the place name. Don’t capitalize these words when they refer to the general location, geography or climate of a region.

  • Snowbirds from the northern states [general location] spend their winters in the Southwest [popular region].
  • The Mid-Atlantic states were the swing vote in the last election [political activity].
  • The mid-Atlantic states had record snowfalls this year [climate].
  • The Northwest gets a lot of rain [popular region].
  • The northwestern states get a lot of rain [climate].
  • Southern accent [people]
  • northern Plains [general location in region]
  • The Midwest Region’s sales figures are down this year [people/activity].
  • Northern Ireland [place name], but northern Montana
  • Western Australia [place name], but western Massachusetts

Regarding these last two examples, if you’re not sure about whether a particular region should be capitalized, look it up. Well-recognized regions are usually described as such online. Also, let context be your guide. If you’re writing an article about economic growth in eastern Michigan, you may want to capitalize Eastern, but a passing reference to the area in another context would be lowercase because the region isn’t recognized as such, unlike Southeast Michigan (also called Southeastern Michigan).

Because of the numerous stylistic variations, coming up with one right answer for questions beyond those relating to compass directions or obvious regions is difficult. Even CMOS hedges its advice by saying, “Note that exceptions based on specific regional, political or historical contexts are inevitable and that an author’s strong preference should usually be respected.”

The key here is to be consistent and, when appropriate, to let context guide you. And if you get lost along the way, don’t be afraid to stop and ask for directions, either by posting your question in the comments below or by asking our grammar experts.



Topics: capitalization

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