In general, when a direction is a description, it's lowercase, and when it's the name of something, it's capitalized—but there are exceptions.
Sometimes directional terms such as south are capitalized and sometimes they aren’t.
When you’re describing a direction, south is lowercase:
The map is behind a secret door on the south wall.
We drove south for 20 miles before we found a gas station.
Directional Region Names: Capitalized
When you’re naming a region, directions are capitalized. For example, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Nashville are all in the South, not the south. One hint, although it’s not 100% definitive, is that if you can put the word the in front of the name, it’s often capitalized:
He’s from the Pacific Northwest.
She’s from the Far East.
You also capitalize other well-known region names like East Coast, West Coast, the South of France, and Southern California.
But it can get tricky because whereas Southern California may be a well-known region, southern Washington, western Turkey, and southern Africa aren’t (at least not according to my style guides), so in those cases you wouldn’t capitalize the directional words.
When in doubt, check a style guide, and if you can’t find an answer, keep the word lowercase. In other words, lowercase should be your default.
Directional Terms to Describe People: It Depends
Another tricky area is directional terms to describe people, such as Southerner and Northerner, because style guides offer differing advice. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style wants southerner to be lowercase, and the Associated Press wants Southerner to be capitalized.
To sum it up, if a directional term is the name of a region, capitalize it. If it’s just a compass point, lowercase it. If you’re unsure, check a dictionary or style guide. And if you can't find an answer, keep it lowercase.
This article was originally published January 4, 2012, and updated June 9, 2017.
Fill in a properly capitalized or lowercase directional word:
1. Moss grows on the ___________________ side of a tree.
2. Pierre is from ___________________ France.
3. The ___________________ won the war.
4. We took pictures of polar bears at the ___________________ Pole.
5. What are the prospects for peace in the Middle ___________________?
6. Maine is ___________________ of New York.
Get more tips like this in The Grammar Devotional: