Do You Capitalize Cardinal Directions? When and When Not to


do you capitalize cardinal directions

Getting the hang of the capitalization of cardinal directions can be quite confusing. However, understanding them is unavoidable thanks to their regular usage in sentences. As such, it is necessary to understand, do you capitalize cardinal directions? When and when not to.

Well, you should capitalize cardinal directions in cases where you use them as proper nouns. In such cases, they depict definite regions and form an integral part of proper names. On the other hand, do not capitalize them where they merely refer to a general location or direction.

However, this is only partially helpful. There are also other rules guiding their capitalization. You need to understand the capitalization of their derivatives – words like eastern, northern, western, and southern. As such, in this post, we will explore these rules while providing illustrative examples. 

cardinal points in metal rod with capital letters

Rules Regarding the Capitalization of Cardinal Directions

Like we already explained, various rules guide how you capitalize cardinal directions. In case you are not sure what we are talking about, it is simple. Cardinal directions are words that indicate general geographic locations or compass directions. These words are primarily four – north, west, south, and east – although there are derivatives.

Now, to understand these rules, you must place them under two categories. The first rule involves those guiding when to capitalize. The other set of rules dictates when you should not capitalize. So, now that we have cleared that up let us get straight to the rules.

When to Capitalize Cardinal Directions

First up are the rules guiding when to capitalize cardinal directions. Now note that you should capitalize all cardinal words in cases where they indicate specific or definite regions. For instance, where you state that your horse is in the North, you need to capitalize it as we did above.

Similarly, you are expected to capitalize cardinal directions when they constitute a member of proper names. Typically, you are expected to capitalize proper names. Now, since it functions as a member of such a name, you capitalize it. 

For instance, if your house is on the West Coast, you will need to capitalize the cardinal direction west. This is because its combination with the word coast makes it a proper noun.

When Not to Capitalize Cardinal Directions 

Next up is deciding when you should not capitalize cardinal directions. The general rule is that you should refrain from doing so where the words indicate a general location or direction. In this case, their use is merely to indicate a general place rather than a definite region. 

For instance, if you are going north of France, the word north is merely a general location. As such, as we have done in the preceding sentence, do not capitalize it. 

Alternative Rules

We believe you will find the rules governing capitalization of primary cardinal directions easy. Now, the complications exist when you need to capitalize its derivatives. 

For instance, capitalizing words like southern and eastern attracts different rules. This is the same when capitalizing words like northeast or southeast. Precisely, there are loads of derivatives that are just as important as the primary words. So, here is what you need to know.

Rules Regarding the Capitalization of Derivatives with “erner”

Usually, the letters “erner” gets added to cardinal directions to produce a new word. In such cases, you have the words Northerner, Southerner, Westerner, and Easterner. The rule is to capitalize them when you use them in any sentence.

Rules Regarding the Capitalization of Derivatives with “ern”

A popular method of deriving new words from cardinal directions is the addition of “ern.” In such a case, you get words like southern, northern, western, and eastern. 

Now, the rule is to ensure that you capitalize them where they designate individuals within a region. This is also the same where you use the word in reference to their social, cultural, or political activities. Similarly, capitalize the word where the word is combined with another to depict an organizational unit, such as the Western Region of Apple’s sales team.

Now, remember that there are cases where the “ern” derivatives precede a place’s name. And constitute a part of the name – for instance, Western Australia. In such a case, you need to capitalize the word.

However, where the word merely precedes the name of a place. And it is not part of the name, do not capitalize. Similarly, do not capitalize them where they are merely depicting geography. This non-capitalization rule also applies where they describe the region’s climate. For instance, where you describe the northern winter.

Illustrative Examples 

So far, we have identified the relevant rules. Still, you can only put them to best use with an adequate understanding of their practical usage. As such, we have identified some illustrative examples to make things easier for you.

Rule 1: Capitalize Cardinal Directions When They Indicate Specific or Definite Regions 

Incorrect 

  • We have a beautiful beach house in the north.
  • We intend to spend our holiday this year down south. 
  • Loads of water-skiers have left for the south this year.

Correct 

  • We have a beautiful beach house in the North.
  • We intend to spend our holiday this year down South. 
  • Loads of water-skiers have left for the South this year.

Rule 2: Capitalize Cardinal Directions When They Represent A Core Part of Proper Names

Incorrect 

  • Our mission this year is set to start at the far east.
  • Good news, our expedition this year is set for the Deep south. 

Correct 

  • Our mission this year is set to start at the Far East.
  • Good news, our expedition this year is set for the Deep South.

metal compass on wooden table

Rule 3: Do Not Capitalize Cardinal Directions When They Designate A General Location or Direction 

Incorrect 

  • We own a very lucrative business somewhere around the East of Spain. 
  • Go west on 1-23 and then head North on Route 25.
  • We hope to one day visit our maternal home in the West of France. 

Correct 

  • We own a very lucrative business somewhere around the east of Spain. 
  • Go west on 1-23 and then head north on Route 25.
  • We hope to one day visit our maternal home in the west of France. 

Rule 4 Capitalize Derivatives with “erner”

Incorrect 

  • You will find loads of northerners traveling to the south of Italy by this time next year.
  • You can hardly offend southerners; they are nice individuals. 

Correct

  • You will find loads of Northerners traveling to the south of Italy by this time next year.
  • You can hardly offend Southerners; they are nice individuals.

Rule 5: Capitalize Derivatives with “ern” When They Designate People Within A Region

Incorrect 

  • You cannot do any better than southern hospitality; they are so caring.
  • I have my share of eastern bankers, and I must say there are quite revered for their expertise in the financial market.

Correct

  • You cannot do any better than Southern hospitality; they are so caring.
  • I have my share of Eastern bankers, and I must say there are quite revered for their expertise in the financial market.

Rule 6: Capitalize Derivatives with “ern” When Their Use Involves People’s Social, Cultural or Political Activities 

Incorrect 

  • The southern states voted just like we had expected them to.
  • The northwestern candidate was favored over the one in the southern states.

Correct

  • The Southern states voted just like we had expected them to.
  • The Northwestern candidate was favored over the one in the Southern states.

Rule 7: Capitalize Derivatives with “ern” When They Function to Depict an Organisational Unit 

Incorrect 

  • The southern district of the President’s re-election campaign team has come up with the goods. 

Correct

  • The Southern District of the President’s re-election campaign team has come up with the goods. 

Rule 8: Capitalize Derivatives with “ern” When They Precede and Form Part of An Area Name

Incorrect 

  • I would love to spend my holidays in western Australia.

Correct

  • I would love to spend my holidays in Western Australia. 

Rule 9: Do Not Capitalize Where Derivatives with “ern” Merely Precedes an Area Name

Incorrect 

  • I would love to spend my holidays in Western Massachusetts. 

Correct 

  • I would love to spend my holidays in western Massachusetts.

Rule 10: Do Not Capitalize Where Derivatives with “ern” Merely Depicts A Region’s Climate or Geography 

Incorrect 

  • I look forward to the Northern winter. 
  • My marketing territory caters to a significant part of the Eastern states.

Correct 

  • I look forward to the northern winter.
  • My marketing territory caters to a significant part of the eastern states.

cardinal points white and black wide

In Conclusion 

When and when not to capitalize cardinal directions are issues that can get you all worked up. This gets even more complicated when you consider capitalizing its derivatives. Well, not anymore. We have explained the relevant rules guiding their usage. We have also provided illustrative examples to make your task easier. 

So, read up, stay informed, and stay correct when writing!

Shawn Manaher

Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He's one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don't even want to know what he calls pancakes.

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