Capitalizing compass points

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

My topic today 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

Image courtesy of

Hyphen-connected participles

Today’s topic is the use of hyphens with phrases made from participles (such as in my cleverly devised blog title—but not in this sentence, as you will see why).


Participles come in two flavours: present and past.

Present participles always end in -ing. You can change any verb and make it into a present participle. Here are some examples:

biking, flying, diving, skiing

Past participles are the third form of the verb. You probably remember memorizing these forms—the last one is the past participle.



In regular verbs, the past participle is the same as the simple past—as in these examples:



We often combine a participle with another word to make a compound phrase. The whole phrase can then describe a noun. Here are some examples:

(1) dish-washing detergent

(2) self-inflicted wounds

(3) horse-drawn carriage

(4) money-saving techniques

(5) clinically-proven results

Which of the above five examples are formed from present participles and which from past participles? (Answer: (1) and (4) are present; the others are past participles.)

When to hyphenate

Compound participle phrases are always hyphenated when they come before the noun they describe (as in the five examples above).

When they follow the noun they describe, hyphenation is optional—though never wrong.

The wounds were self inflicted. Or: The wounds were self-inflicted.

The results were clinically proven. Or: The results were clinically-proven.

If a participle is preceded by an adverb that ends in -ly, the compound is never hyphenated:

recently discovered fossils

badly managed accounts


In the following sentences, (1) find the participle phrase and the noun or noun phrase it describes; (2) hyphenate as needed; (3) indicate whether the participle is a present or past one.

Answers follow. Number (1) is done by way of example.

1)  A variety of food preserving methods are used to prevent bacteria from spoiling food.

Answer: food-preserving methods (present)

2)  All early airplanes were powered by gasoline driven piston engines that spun propellers.

3)  Fiberglass reinforced plastic combines the flexibility of a plastic with the strength of the fiberglass that is embedded in the plastic.

4)  The most commonly used type of primary cell is the zinc carbon battery or dry cell.

5)  The shock absorbing properties of rubber make it useful for car suspensions.

6)  Most of the world’s 25 fastest growing cities are in the developing world.

7)  Today, the main uses of steam turbines are in power plants and for the propulsion of nuclear powered ships.

8)  Microphones turn sound into an electric signal that can drive a groove cutting machine.

9)  Modern radio telescopes scan the sky with huge, bowl shaped dishes that reflect radio signals onto small horn antennae.

10) Cheap, factory made wristwatches made time available to everyone by the beginning of the 1900s.


2)  gasoline-driven piston engines (past)

3)  Fiberglass-reinforced plastic (past)

4)  most commonly used type of primary cell (past)

5)  shock-absorbing properties (present)

6)  fastest-growing cities (present)

7)  nuclear-powered ships (past)

8)  groove-cutting machine (present)

9)  bowl-shaped dishes (past)

10) factory-made wristwatches (past)


Image at top courtesy of Free Digital Photos.

The ten sentences for the exercise were taken from: Taylor, Charles, ed. The Kingfisher Science Encyclopedia. Boston: Kingfisher, 2000.

Breaking up words and URLs at the end of a line

Earlier, we talked about soft hyphens vs. hard hyphens (see my post on hyphens).

Hard hyphens are permanent (as in the word twenty-five); soft hyphens are used only at the end of a line to break up a word.

Here are some principles to keep in mind when breaking up words at the end of a line:

• don’t break up a word so that only one letter occurs by itself


• try to break up a compound word where there’s already a hard hyphen without adding a second, soft hyphen



• never break up single-syllable words


(even though it has two parts, gasp and -ed, gasped is pronounced as one syllable)

• break up words at a syllable break



Some dictionaries indicate where words may be divided. For example, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary uses dots:



Because each character in a website address is crucial, URLs have their own set of rules for where you may break them. Here’s an overview:

1) for starters, never insert a hyphen in a URL

So, while you can break up a URL at the end of a line, you never add a hyphen when you do so. The reason is that it creates confusion whether the hyphen is part of the URL or not.

2) break a URL after a colon (:), a slash (/), a double slash (//), or @

Likely, people will realize that this is not the end of the URL address and continue reading on to the next line.

3) break a URL before a period or any other punctuation mark or symbol

This is to avoid giving the impression that the URL ends at the end of the first line.

4) if the URL already contains a hyphen, never break after the hyphen; you may break before the hyphen

Again, the reason is to avoid ambiguity whether the hyphen is part of the URL or not.

5) if you have a long stretch of text, break at a syllable break

Ready for a test?

Which of the following URLs have been broken up correctly? (The first line has the unbroken URL; below that is the URL broken up.)

(a) URL:

(b) URL:

(c) URL:

(d) URL:

(e) URL:

(f) URL:

(g) URL: %2012&version=KJV


(a) is incorrect: break should come before the period

(b) is correct: break occurs after colon

(c) is incorrect: never add a hyphen when breaking up a URL (without the hyphen the break would be OK because it occurs at a syllable boundary)

(d) is incorrect: break should come before the hyphen, never after the hyphen

(e) is correct: break occurs before the period

(f) is correct: break occurs before the underline

(g) is incorrect: break should come after slash


(Image at top courtesy of Free Digital Photos. Please understand that I cannot vouch for the appropriateness of all images on that site.)