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I’m Lost – Do I Capitalize Compass Directions Such as “North”? 

Do we capitalize cardinal directions such as “north” or “south”? Let’s start with a few quick answers:

  • Generally, directional words will be lowercase when referring to a non-specific direction or location.
  • However, capitalize them if they are part of the name of a specific (proper) noun.
  • These words will also be capitalized when referring to a well-known location section. 

It can certainly be a challenge to keep grammar rules straight, especially in circumstances where words are sometimes capitalized and other times not. Cardinal directions such as “north” or “south” are great examples of situations where people are unsure how to write the words, hence the title question “do we capitalize north?”

As a general rule of thumb, these words will not be capitalized. However, there are specific situations where they do need an uppercase designation. 

Let’s look more in-depth to understand better when to capitalize cardinal directions and when not. 

What are Cardinal Directions?

The cardinal directions can be located on a compass rose, the little symbol on a map that lets the user know how that map is aligned, so they know which direction to go to reach their intended destination. 

The basic cardinal directions are: northwest, north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, and west. 

Remember, you can’t go “westeast” or “southnorth” or those directions in reverse, as fun as that may seem. 

Cardinal Directions as the First Word of a Sentence

While it may seem like common sense, just in case – if a cardinal direction is the first word of a sentence, it will be capitalized, just like any other word.

  • North of here, Sheila found a creepy abandoned mine. 

In this case, it does not matter what part of speech it is or whether it is a common or proper noun; the word receives the capitalization treatment. 

Cardinal Directions as Common Nouns

When using the words as common nouns, referring to a general direction, they will not be capitalized. 

Remember that a common noun is a non-specific person, place, things, or abstract idea. In other words, it’s not an actual name but a general location: 

  • Dixon climbed the hill and peered off to the west

As we are not talking about the name of a specific place or region, “west” is not capitalized because Dixon is just looking in a general direction. 

  • The farm is on the outskirts, north of the city. 

While it is easy to think that “north” seems like a specific direction, it’s not – “north” encompasses a wide variety of regions, so it is a general area. Due to this, you do not capitalize “north.”

  • The wind blew in from an eastern direction. 

The same capitalization rules apply when using the adjective form of the cardinal directions. As the word indicates a general direction, it maintains its lowercase status.

  • Jasmine visited northern Italy on her vacation.

There is a proper noun here: Italy. However, since the adjective form is not part of the actual name of the specific place, it is still a common noun and is not capitalized. 

Cardinal Directions as Proper Nouns 

The game changes when the cardinal direction is a proper noun or part of a proper noun. In this situation, the word refers to a specific person, place, thing, or idea, so it usually takes the form of a name. 

  • Wally’s sister just got back from a trip to North Dakota.   

Here is the instance when the cardinal direction is a part of the place name itself and not referring to a general direction. Without the word “North” here, it changes the meaning of the word or renders it incomprehensible because now it is an essential element in the name of a specific place. 

  • Our class read a book about the Old West

The Old West is a name for a specific period in history, which took place in the western part of the world, in North America. Capitalize!

  • Santa Clause’s workshop is at the North Pole, not the South Pole!   

Either location is a specific place name, so the rule applies. 

  • Angela’s bucket list includes seeing the Far East, the Middle East, and taking a cruise through the Southern Hemisphere. 

In this example, the Middle East is a place, so there shouldn’t be any question about why it is capitalized. The Southern Hemisphere is one of four specific hemispheres, so that is logical. 

But what about “the Far East?” Why is that capitalized? 

In some instances, like with the “Old West” example, two common nouns unite to form a less specific proper noun. These words have an understood meaning relating to locations, so they get a bye and are capitalized. 

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By James Smith

Described as an "English Guru," James Smith holds a Master's degree in English from Arkansas Tech University, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with a minor in ESL. James is a sought after writer and editor with university teaching experience.

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