Brushing Up on Capital Letters

Words like north, mother, professor, and officer can be confusing: How do you know when to use capital letters?

There’s a simple answer: Capitalize a word when you’re using it as a name.

Let’s look at directional words first. When you travel north on a highway or go to the northern part of town, you’re not referring to a specific place. There’s no capital letter.

On the other hand, sometimes North, South, East, or West refer to specific places and need capital letters. One useful clue is that they’re often preceded by “the.”

In Asia, elderly people receive a great deal of respect. Here in the West, however, we seem to have lost that tradition. CORRECT

I saw bloodstains on the carpet near an east-facing window in the bedroom.  CORRECT

He grew up in East Stroudsburg, a university town in Pennsylvania. CORRECT

You can park your car in the lot on the south side of the building.  CORRECT

The South always plays an important role in Presidential elections. CORRECT

The suspect drove in a northwest direction for two hours before she abandoned the car.  CORRECT

Here’s another clue: if a picture of a map pops up in your head, the capital letter is probably correct. East Stroudsburg, the South, and the West are all specific places on a map. But “facing east,” “a northwest direction,” and “the south side of the building” aren’t locations on a map. Don’t use a capital letter.

Now let’s look at words like mother, professor, and officer. The same rule applies: “Is it a name?”

I found a perfect birthday gift for Mother. CORRECT

How is your mother doing?  CORRECT

Swanson said his mother was taking care of the children while he was at work. CORRECT

Farrell was just hired as a professor. CORRECT

I still keep in touch with Professor Davies because he was wonderful to me when I was an undergraduate. CORRECT

Be aware that no professor will tolerate sloppy or careless work. CORRECT

You should ask Officer Harris for some tips about using spreadsheets.  CORRECT

Every officer who worked that case deserves congratulations.  CORRECT

We require officers to renew their certification every three years.   CORRECT

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