Archive - Say What? RSS Feed

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)!


Don’t Get Cappy Happy

Writers seem to get “cappy” happy (yes, I just made up that term). I often see the most random terms and phrases capitalized, but generally the rule is that if it’s not a specific proper name of something, it doesn’t need to have the first letter capitalized. Here are just a few types of words that often erroneously get capitalized. All the terms and phrases listed below should be lowercased as shown.

Student status:

  •  freshman or first-year student
  • sophomore
  • junior
  • senior

Academic degrees:

  • a master’s degree
  • a doctorate; a fellowship
  • master of business administration (MBA)

Ethnic groups (common designations) unless a particular publisher or author prefers otherwise:

  •  black people; blacks; people of color
  • white people; whites

Terms denoting socioeconomic classes:

  •  the middle class; a middle-class neighborhood
  • the upper-middle class; an upper-middle-class family
  • blue-collar workers
  • the aristocracy
  • the proletariat
  • homeless people

Terms denoting generations:

  • the me generation
  • baby boomer(s)
  • generation X; generation Y; generation Z
  • the MTV generation

Note that when referring to an academic department, you do use initial caps, but do not capitalize the: I went to the Department of Natural History yesterday to speak to the dean.

Time Is the Topic of the Day

Writers often refer to the time of day in a scene, so it’s good to know when to spell out the time and when to use numerals. The rule is fairly simple. Times of day in even, half, and quarter hours are usually spelled out in text. With o’clock, the number is always spelled out.

  • Her day begins at five o’clock in the morning.
  • The meeting continued until half past three.
  • He left the office at a quarter of four (or a quarter to four. The a before quarter is optional).
  • We will resume at ten thirty.
  • Cinderella almost forgot that she should leave the ball before midnight.

Numerals are used (with zeros for even hours) when exact times are emphasized. Chicago recommends lowercase a.m. and p.m., though these sometimes appear in small capitals, with or without periods.

  • The first train leaves at 5:22 a.m. and the last at 11:00 p.m.
  • She caught the 6:20 p.m. flight.
  • Please attend a meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on December 5 at 10:30 a.m. (EST).