How to Capitalize East, West, North, and South (Plus Mixtures!)

By Carly Forsaith, updated on March 6, 2023

Knowing when to capitalize East, West, North, and South can be tricky because they are sometimes capitalized and sometimes not. Want to know the rules around capitalizing cardinal points? Read on.

In short, these words are usually capitalized when they refer to the name of a place or person who lives there.

When they are used when giving directions, they are not.

But this will depend on your style guide.

Should You Capitalize East, West, North, and South?

So what’s the deal with the cardinal points? Why are they sometimes capitalized and other times not? Well, the difficulty comes from the fact that different style guides disagree. So before we get started, I want you to know that unless you’re following a specific style guide, there’s no hard and fast rule, but there are guidelines.

If you or the company you write for does follow a particular style guide, refer to that for directions on how to capitalize the words. If you don’t, then read on for ideas on best practices.

When to Capitalize

East, West, North, and South are nouns, and sometimes they are proper nouns. If you’re familiar with the capitalization rules for nouns, you’ll know that they aren’t usually capitalized, except if they are proper nouns.

You can follow the same principle for the cardinal points. Capitalize them if you’re using them to refer to a specific location, like countries, cities, or other geographical areas.

Like the following:

Take me home to the place where I belong: West Virginia.

The Middle East has some of the best mochas.

I chose a great restaurant on East Street.

The same goes when you’re referring to the inhabitants of these places.

For example:

Middle Eastern cuisine is very popular the world over.

Our new team member is South African.

Her family members are all Northerners.

You should also capitalize the words when talking about culture, movement, or practice.

For instance:

Eastern medicine would be a great supplement to your current course of treatment.

Who is the true King of the North?

You have to try Southern Fried Green Tomatoes!

When Not to Capitalize

There are also instances when you can use the words east, west, north, and south descriptively instead of as proper nouns. In those cases, you wouldn’t capitalize the words.

This might happen, for instance, if you’re referring to a location (but not a specific location or the name of a place) or giving directions—case in point in the following sentences.

The church is just north of the shopping mall.

Drive south for about 10 kilometers, then head east on Kennedy Street.

I heard there’s a decent motel just west of here.

What About Mixtures?

Sometimes, you might combine two different cardinal points into one.

Those are:

  • Northeast
  • Northwest
  • Southeast
  • Southwest

What should you do in those cases in terms of capitalization? The answer is simple: follow the same guidelines outlined above, as such:

This weekend the strong winds are heading forth towards the northwest.

It’s pretty easy to backpack solo through Southeast Asia.

The southwestern borders have been reinforced.

A Note on Style Guides

I want to reiterate that style guides will differ in the capitalization rules regarding the cardinal points. This means you’ll definitely see variations for what I’ve outlined above.

On top of that, there is a lot of ambiguity in some of these cases. Take place names, for instance. Style guides advise that you should capitalize popular or well-recognized places beginning with east, west, north, or south. But what constitutes a well-recognized place? That’s very subjective.

But this ambiguity is one thing that some style guides do agree on, in which case they recommend picking one option and sticking to it. In other words, there’s no wrong option here. And that’s good news if I’ve heard any.

Concluding Thoughts on How to Capitalize East, West, North, and South

Yes, the rules around capitalization of east, west, north, and south can be tricky, but the essential things to remember are:

  • Follow your chosen style guide if you have one.
  • If you don’t follow a particular style guide, the most important thing is to stay consistent.
  • Capitalize the cardinal points when referring to the name of a place or a person from that place.
  • Don’t capitalize the words when they are simply directional.

If you found this article helpful and want to learn to navigate other complex grammar rules, head to our blog.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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