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When Do You Capitalize Geographic Terms?

Even if nothing more than your imagination leaves the living room, you still need to know the rules for capitalizing the names of places, languages, geographical features, regions, and directions. And, just as you would expect, English has a boatload of rules. Here’s a complete guide to capitalizing geographical terms in English.

Using caps in directions and areas of a country

Robbie and Levon, Jason’s parakeets, don’t migrate for the winter. (Instead, they sit on the window frame and squawk at their friends, the pigeons of New York.) If they did fly away, though, where would they go — south or South? It depends. The direction of flight is south (lowercase). The area of the country where they work on a tan, grow a few new feathers, and generally enjoy themselves is the South (uppercase). Got it? From New York City you drive west to visit the West (or the Midwest).

The names of other, smaller areas are often capitalized too. Plopped in the center of New York City is Central Park, which the West Side and the East Side flank. Chicago has a South Side and London has Bloomsbury. Note the capital letters for the names of these areas.

Capitalizing geographic features

Capitalize locations within a country when the proper name is given (the name of a city or region, such as the Mississippi River, the Congo, or Los Angeles, for example).

Is the part of the name? Usually not, even when it’s hard to imagine the name without it. In general, don’t capitalize the.

When the name doesn’t appear, lowercase geographical features (mountain, valley, gorge or beach, for instance).

In general, you should capitalize the names of countries and languages. One exception to this rule: common objects with a country or nationality as part of the name (french fries, scotch whiskey, venetian blinds, and so forth). By attaching itself to a common object, the language or country name takes on a new meaning. The name no longer makes the reader think of the country or language. Instead, the reader simply thinks of an everyday object. If you’re not sure whether or not to capitalize the geographical part of a common item, check the dictionary.

Correct the capitalization in this paragraph.

When Alex sent his little brother Abner to Italy, Abner vowed to visit Mount Vesuvius. Alex asked Abner to bring back some venetian blinds, but Abner returned empty-handed. “Let’s go out for chinese food,” said Abner when he returned. “Some sesame noodles will cheer me up.”

Here is the answer, with explanations in parentheses:

When Alex sent his little brother Abner to Italy (correct — country name), Abner vowed to visit Mount Vesuvius (capitalize the entire name of the mountain). Alex asked Abner to bring back some venetian blinds (correct — lowercase for the name of a common object), but Abner returned empty-handed. “Let’s go out for Chinese food (because this isn’t the name of one specific item, such as french fries, capitals are better),” said Abner when he returned. “Some sesame noodles will cheer me up
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