The other day, I got lost in the jungle, but luckily, I had a compass with me …
So I was able to draw perfect circles with a pencil.1
Do you feel this way? You have the raw materials (a knowledge of compass directions, the ability to point toward the sun and grunt “east”) but you don’t know “where to go” with them.
If you cringe every time you write a compass direction or a related term, you’ve found the perfect resource.
While there are some distinctions between style guides,2 this post serves as an overview of the most important, well-accepted, and concise d
irections on the subject as it applies to business writing.
Compass Direction Directions:
1. Lowercase compass directions when they are being used to indicate direction or general location.
- Are you sure the sun rises in the east?
- Go south on I-95 for 80 miles, then turn around and come back.
- The cabin is 30 yards west of the river.
- The farther north and the higher the elevation, the shorter the growing season is.
2. Capitalize compass directions and their derivations when they’re part of a proper noun and/or refer to definite regions or geographic areas.
- the East Coast
- the Southeast (or Southeastern United States)
- the Western Pacific region
- Northern Ireland
3. Capitalize compass direction derivations when they refer to the people in a region or their political, social, or cultural activities.
- The Northern states were the deciding factor in the popular vote. The Southern states abstained from voting due to a heat wave that melted all the ice cream in a 1,000-mile radius.
- He learned that Western civilization has its roots in the Mediterranean.
- The city is renowned for its Southern hospitality and abundant insect population.
- The Northeast Semifinalist for the 2021 Traditional Hokey Pokey Contest is Mortimer Snerd.
- The winner for highest sales figures in 1993 was the Midwest Region.
4. Lowercase compass direction derivations when they refer to the geography or climate of a region or general location within a region.
- southern New Jersey
- eastern half of Kansas
- westerly winds
- most of the southeastern states
- northern plains
5. Points of Clarification: We recognize there are differing opinions on the importance and relative significance of a region, especially for people who call an area their home versus those who don’t. For example: Residents of southern California often prefer to write Southern California.
Exceptions based on specific regional, political, or historical context are inevitable, and an author’s preference should usually be respected.
For any terms that aren’t included or for which an appropriate analogy can’t be made, consult Merriam Webster or an encyclopedia. If the term in question is otherwise generic and not listed as capitalized, rest on your laurels and use lowercase.3
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1 Found on upjoke.com.
2 On variations between AP and The Chicago Manual of Style regarding compass direction capitalization, read Terri Porter’s post North, South, West, East … Capitalizing Can Be a Beast.
3 This general advice summarized from The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition, sections 8.46 and 8.47.