Point Me in the Right Direction

Okay, maybe you’re ready for some tricky rules about capitalization regarding geographic regions. If not, swallow hard and take a look. Many writers have trouble knowing when to capitalize a geographical region, and there is no easy rule. Here are a few examples showing the correct way to capitalize:

  • the Great Plains; the northern plains; the plains (but Plains Indians)
  • the Midwest, midwestern, a midwesterner (as of the United States)
  • the North, northern, a northerner (of a country); the North, Northern, Northerner (in American Civil War contexts); Northern California; North Africa, North African countries, in northern Africa; North America, North American, the North American continent; the North Atlantic, a northern Atlantic route; the Northern Hemisphere; the Far North; north, northern, northward, to the north (directions)
  • the Northeast, the Northwest, northwestern, northeastern, a northwesterner, a northeasterner (as of the United States); the Pacific Northwest; the Northwest Passage
  • the poles; the North Pole; the North Polar ice cap; the South Pole; polar regions; Antarctica; the Arctic
  • the South, southern, a southerner (of a country); the South, Southern, a Southerner (in American Civil War contexts); the Deep South; Southern California; the South of France (region); Southeast Asia; South Africa, South African (referring to the Republic of South Africa); southern Africa (referring to the southern part of the continent); south, southern, southward, to the south (directions)
  • the Southeast, the Southwest, southeastern, southwestern, a southeasterner, a southwesterner (as of the United States)

As I’ve mentioned before, the tendency is to lowercase unless the name or phrase is referring to something akin to a proper name or title. But when it comes to specific regions of the world, some are considered “worthy” of capitalization while others aren’t. We in California were happy to see Chicago add Northern California to its list of worthies in the 16th edition. Why it wasn’t seen on the same level as Southern California all these years, I guess we may never know. And I hope you noticed the absence of hyphens in those compound terms, like southwesterner. Even my WordPress spell-check gives me every possible option except the correct one (which should give you a clue as to how correct those spell-checkers are)!


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    1. The rules I put up on my blog are US style, based on Chicago Manual of Style, which guides the US publishing industry. Unfortunately I am unfamiliar with all the rules for UK style, but there are plenty of books on the topic. Since my blog readers are all over the world, I can’t speak to every style out there, but each writer should learn what the style rules are for the country he or she hopes/plans to publish in. If you do some research on this, feel free to share what differences there are in the style rules between US and UK.

  1. Sorry to say this, but that didn’t help me much. I’m still in the woods (but at least I do know that I’m not in The Woods).

    My default strategy is to only capitalize political boundaries and maybe major map regions. The trouble is that it’s often context-dependent.

    I suspect that this is an area where a writer should consult the local relevant style manual, and if there is none, to make one up. Just be consistent about it.

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