Tag Archive - capitalization

Places to Call to Your Attention

We’re continuing a look at capitalization rules for US standard rules according to The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the authority used in the publishing world. Popular names of places, or epithets, are usually capitalized. Quotation marks are not needed.  Note that where the article the is used, it is not capitalized.

  • the Fertile Crescent
  • the Gaza Strip
  • the Gulf
  • the Holy City
  • the Jewish Quarter
  • the Lake District
  • the Left Bank
  • the Loop (Chicago)
  • the Old World
  • the Panhandle
  • the Promised Land
  • Silicon Valley
  • Skid Row

Names of mountains, rivers, oceans, islands, and so forth are capitalized. The generic term (mountain, etc.) is also capitalized when used as part of the name.

  • the Bering Strait
  • the Mediterranean Sea; the Mediterranean
  • the Pacific Ocean; the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans
  • the Great Barrier Reef
  • the Hawaiian Islands; Hawaii; but the island of Hawaii
  • Mount Washington; Mount Rainier; Mounts Washington and Rainier
  • the Rocky Mountains; the Rockies
  • Death Valley; the Valley of Kings
  • the Continental Divide

The best and simplest way to generalize capitalization rules is to consider whether what you are writing is a proper name or something more general. Proper names should have initial caps. General terms do not. That’s not always the case, but when in doubt, default to that principle.

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.

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