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Capitalisation: Compass Points and Titles

In our time training proofreaders, we’ve noticed that the subtleties of capitalisation can sometimes confuse even the best students. So, today, we’re going to look at two tricky capitalisation issues that might trip you up: compass points and titles.

Compass Points and Directions

It is a common misconception that the four compass directions should always be capitalised. This is not the case. Indeed, they follow the same rules as any other word most of the time and should only be capitalised when they form part of a proper noun.

So the following sentences, for instance, would both be correct:

In the south of England, there are strong westerly winds.

On the West Coast of America, it is sunny.

Here, West Coast is a proper noun: the name of a specific region. In contrast, south of England refers to a general area and westerly to a general direction.

Titles

We’re not talking book titles or chapter headings here. Different style guides will have their own rules for those. No, we’re talking about capitalising people’s honorific titles.

Terms such as Mrs, Mr and Ms are simple because they are rarely used except alongside a person’s name, such as Mr Bean or Mrs Slokum. We therefore know to capitalise them.

But other titles are more complicated. Take doctor, for instance. This term should only be capitalised when it is used before someone’s name. In other cases, it simply refers to someone with a doctorate and should be lowercase unless it appears at the start of a sentence.

So, for example, both of the following are correct:

I am going to see Doctor Jones.

I am going to see a doctor.

In the first example above, Doctor is capitalised as part of a title (this would often be shortened to Dr). In the second, the speaker is referring to a doctors generically rather than naming a specific doctor, so we do not need a capital letter.

Similarly, titles of family members such as mother, father, aunt and uncle are only capitalised when they are used as names or parts of names. So the following sentences are correct:

I asked Mum when Auntie Fay was coming over.

I asked my mum when my auntie was coming over.