Capitalizing compass points

Whether you live back East, up North, down South, or out West—I hope you’ll get something out of this post.

My topic for this post is compass points (north, east, south, west) and when to capitalize them, with a bonus section on hyphenation and abbreviation.

Do not capitalize these terms if they simply show location or direction.

The sun rises in the east.

Go south on Canada Way.

But (of course) capitalize them if they are part of a proper name.

the North Pole

South Dakota

West Virginia

the Middle East

Also capitalize them if they refer to definite regions—even ones that don’t appear on a map.

Thousands of fish are dying in the Midwest as the hot, dry summer dries up                       rivers and lakes.

The Far North represents 42% of the province of Ontario.

As for northern/southern etc., do not capitalize these before a place name unless they are part of a proper name.

Hurricane Isaac is expected to move over southern Missouri [a general region] Friday night.


The first European to visit Western Australia [name of a province] was the Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog.

Two bonus points:


Don’t use a hyphen when combining two compass points:

The surge was unusually bad in LaPlace, about 25 miles northwest of New Orleans.

But when adding a third point, add a hyphen between the first two:

Isaac was moving north-northwest at 12 mph.


Single compass point abbreviations are followed by a period, two-letter ones are not.

Highway 1 W.

Marine Blvd NE

E. Main St

These abbreviations are used even if you quote an address in a text.

Don’t abbreviate compass points if they are part of the proper name of a street or place name:

North Avenue

North Shore Blvd.

South Fraser Way

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