A capital dilemma: “western Australia” or “Western Australia”?

Image: Western Australia, © TUBS via commons.wikimedia.org CC BY-SA 3.0

 Warning: trivial.

Because no point of writing pedantry is too trivial to catch my eye – and my friends know it – I was asked for advice last week about when to capitalize directional modifiers of place names.  Should one write “western Australia” or “Western Australia”; “northern Ireland” or “Northern Ireland”; or “the northwestern Atlantic” or “the Northwestern Atlantic”?  I know, the Progress of Science and Civilization doesn’t rest on our getting this right, but it’s a question that comes up from time to time, and if you’ve ever been unsure, read on.

I turned to my trusty shelf of writing books to back up my intuition.  The bottom line*: capitalize the directional modifier if it’s part of a formal or generally accepted name for a particular place; but don’t capitalize it if you’re instead marking a part of a place.  So, the political entity that’s an Australian state is Western Australia; but the westernmost parts of Australia are western Australia.  Similarly, “Northern Ireland” is one of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, while “northern Ireland” is that part of the Republic of Ireland that includes the marvellously named Burnfoot, Clonmany, Bunagee**, Ballyliffin, Falcarragh, Doochary, and Gortahork.  And it’s the North Atlantic but the northwestern Atlantic – the former being generally accepted as a specific place, but the latter being a custom-crafted description.

Of course, what really matters here (as in all writing) is communicating precisely and with clarity.  Some of these cases are likely to sow some confusion, and if I really wanted to refer to “northern Ireland” I would probably be wiser to write “northern parts of Ireland” or “Ireland’s Donegal County”.  Doing so requires an extra word or two, but that’s a good investment if it eases my reader’s understanding.

While we’re on the subject, some other capitalization issues:

  • The rule for words like “lake”, “street”, and “university” is analogous: “Lake Ontario”, but “several lakes in Ontario”; “Main Street”, but “the town’s main street”; “the Pacific Ocean”, but “the world’s largest ocean”; and “The University of New Brunswick” but “the oldest university in New Brunswick”.
  • Titles are capitalized when they precede someone’s name but not otherwise: “Professor Snape”, but “Severus Snape, a professor at Hogwarts”; “Senator Snowe” but “Olympia Snowe, the senator from Maine”.
  • And my favourite: the interjection “O” is capitalized, but not the interjection “oh”: so it’s “O, how I’m puzzled by the capitalization of ‘oh’”.
  • UPDATE:  Richard Sever points out a more biology-specific capitalization issue: it’s a Southern blot (after Edwin Southern) – but an eastern blot, a western blot, and a northern blot (named by analogy rather than from a name).

We now return you to regularly scheduled programming (and things that actually matter).

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) March 27, 2017

Thanks to Alex Bond for asking me the question that inspired this post.  Alex and I may be each other’s favourite pedants.

*^Sources: Diyanni and Hoy 2001, The Scribner Handbook for Writers, 3rd edition, p. 585; and Fowler et al. 2001, The Little, Brown Handbook, 3rd Canadian edition, p. 425.  These are standard handbooks that cover English grammar and style. If you’re serious about writing, have one on your shelf – any edition will do.

**^And Bonagee, which about 60 km from Bunagee.  Gosh, that’s not confusing at all.


3 thoughts on “A capital dilemma: “western Australia” or “Western Australia”?

      1. Richard Sever

        The journal style guides I’ve used all had only Southern capitalized since only that is a proper noun (a colleague confirms this); so I think this is an instance where the OED may be wrong (shock!). I suppose it’s possible that at some point one could deem the other forms have entered the realm of proper nouns, but then it would be Northern Blot not Northern blot.



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