When to Capitalize North, South, East and West
  • 3-minute read
  • 14th October 2020

When to Capitalize North, South, East and West

Should compass directions (i.e., north, south, east, and west) ever be capitalized? And if so, when? To find out when to capitalize “North,” “South,” “East,” and “West,” read our guide to capitalizing directions below.

North, South, East and West as Directions

When “north,” “south,” “east,” and “west” refer to generic directions (i.e., the points of the compass), they are not capitalized:

Scotland is to the north of England.

We walked south for three miles.

The sun always sets in the west.

The master bedroom is in the east wing of the mansion.

The same applies for related adjectives and other compass directions:

There will be a northerly wind tomorrow.

We live in the eastern part of the country.

The castle lies to the south-west.

The key factor here is that we’re using these words descriptively (i.e., to specify the direction or location of something), not to name something.

North, South, East and West as Proper Nouns

You should capitalize “North,” “South,” “East,” and “West” when they’re part of a proper noun (i.e., the name of a unique thing). The obvious examples of this are countries, states, cities, and other geographical areas:

We study the history of Eastern Europe.

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I’m visiting South Africa next year.

He comes from North Dakota.

Westward Ho! is a village in the UK.

However, some people also suggest capitalizing the names of:

  • Broad geographical regions (e.g., “the North” or “the Far East”)
  • People from a specific region (e.g., “Northerners,” “Southerners”)
  • Cultures or movements related to a region (e.g., “Western philosophy”)

The uniting theme here is the idea of naming a well-known or well-defined region. In some cases, like country and city names, this is clear. But in other cases, it is more a matter of convention and habit.

For example, most people would capitalize “South London” because South London is a well-known part of a famous city. But it would be unusual to do this for a less well-known location, such as “south Coventry.”

View of Coventry City Centre from One Friargate, Friargate Boulevard, Coventry, England, United Kingdom (October 2019) showing the three spires of the city plus The Wave waterpark.
Not as famous as London, maybe, but it has its moments. (Photo: Si Chun Lam/wikimedia)

There is room for variation here: if you live in Coventry and you’re writing for other Coventry residents, then perhaps writing “South Coventry” would make sense. But, generally, you only need to capitalize a direction in a place name if the direction is a standard part of the place’s name.

Summary, Style Guides and Proofreading

To summarize the advice above, we suggest:

  • Capitalizing “North,” “South,” “East,” and “West” when they’re part of a proper noun (i.e., the name of a specific geographical region or culture).
  • Not capitalizing when referring to a general direction.

However, capitalization may depend on the style guide you’re using. The Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA Handbook, for instance, say to only capitalize “Southern” when referring to the American Civil War. But the AP Stylebook says to always capitalize “Southern” when referring to “the South” in the United States, regardless of whether you’re discussing the Civil War.

In other words, directions can be tricky! In all cases, though, you should:

  • Check your style guide (if applicable) for advice on specific terms.
  • Be consistent (e.g., don’t use “south England” in one part of a document and “South England” in another if you’re referring to the same place).

And if you need help, our expert proofreaders are ready! You can even submit a sample document for free to see how our services work.

Comments (14)
Victoria Briault
9th September 2021 at 10:17
I wanted to know how to write Southeast Albania correctly (proof reading). South-East Albania? South-Eastern Albania? Surely not one word Southeast?
    Proofed
    9th September 2021 at 14:04
    Hi, Victoria. I don't think there's an established norm for identifying regions of Albania in English (although you might get a different answer if you asked an Albanian, I suppose), but looking at Google Ngrams, "southeastern Albania" seems to be the most common option: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=southeast+Albania%2Csoutheastern+Albania%2Csouth-east+Albania%2Csouth-eastern+Albania&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Csoutheast%20Albania%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Csoutheastern%20Albania%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Csouth%20-%20east%20Albania%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Csouth%20-%20eastern%20Albania%3B%2Cc0 Note that it doesn't seem to be treated as a compound proper noun (e.g., searching for "Southeastern Albania" produces an error since Ngrams is case sensitive and there don't seem to be any instances of that capitalization in the Google Books database). Whichever version you use, then, we'd suggest not capitalizing the direction, just the country name. Consistency is the most important thing, though, so you should be fine as long as the form chosen is clear and you use it each time. Hope all that helps!
Kelly
15th September 2021 at 02:43
The street is named Bolton Avenue. The sentence reads "I turned on north Bolton." Is north capitalized there? Thank you.
    Proofed
    15th September 2021 at 08:51
    Hi, Kelly. As explained in the post, there is no need to capitalize these words when used generically (only when they're part of a proper noun). And "north" in that sentence refers to a direction (i.e., where you turned), not the place (i.e., Bolton Avenue).
Chris
21st September 2021 at 01:35
Most of the north is sandy, and the northern coast is mountainous. Do you capitalize north?
    Proofed
    21st September 2021 at 09:05
    Hi, Chris. As explained in the post, some people do capitalize terms like "the North" when they refer to a well-established geographical area. However, it is only compulsory to do so when "North" is part of a proper noun. There's not enough context in your example to offer any solid advice (e.g., the "north" of where?), but I'd suggest not capitalizing it unless you're certain it is necessary.
Mary
5th October 2021 at 23:23
I often have to write north, west in reference to an entrance or exit, for example, the patron exited through the north turnstile. The argument I hear is this is a region of the building not a direction, so it should be capitalized. Is this correct.
    Proofed
    6th October 2021 at 10:35
    Hi, Mary. The example you give is a generic direction used as an adjective (like the "east wing of the mansion" example in the post), so no capitalization is required.
Michael Chester
13th October 2021 at 20:15
Opportunities exist on the east and west sides of the city. (Cap or no cap on east and west)
    Proofed
    14th October 2021 at 10:18
    Hi, Michael. As noted in the post, there's no need to capitalize generic directions (only when they're part of a proper noun).
James Pruner
13th February 2022 at 17:36
Should "west coast" be capitalized if it is referring to the western region of the U.S.?
    Proofed
    14th February 2022 at 11:05
    Hi, James. Most style guides recommend capitalizing "West Coast" when referring to the western seaboard of the U.S.
royal hartigan
1st November 2022 at 13:54
hi, should i capitalize 'west' in 'west Africa' or 'north' in north Africa'? - thanks!
    Proofed
    4th November 2022 at 10:10
    Hi there! Unless they are actually part of the place name, directions don’t need to be capitalized, but this depends on personal preference (e.g., if it might make this clearer to the reader) and whether it’s specified by a style guide. The main thing is to be consistent with whatever you choose.

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