When to capitalize the names of places.

My friends at ProofreadNOW.com hit a weakness of mine, I over capitalize places. Here’s a refresher if you do it too much or don’t capitalize enough.

Capitalize names of specific political divisions and subdivisions and the names of geographical regions and features; in most cases, also capitalize adjectives derived from such names.

The names of countries, states, provinces, counties, cities, towns, and villages are obviously capitalized, though sometimes a decision has to be made about generic terms that may occur with such names. New York City is an official name and Kansas City is the only name; there is no question that city is capitalized in these examples. ButWashington state and Washington State both occur, to distinguish the state from the District of Columbia; and New York state and New York State both occur, to distinguish the state from the city. A workable rule with state is to capitalize it when it follows the proper noun but not when it precedes:Washington State, but the state of Washington. Canadian provinces, however, have the official form Province of Quebec, Province of Ontario, and so on.

The names of continents, oceans, rivers, lakes, islands and island groups, mountains, canyons, and similar geographical features are also capitalized, but again there may be some style problems when there are accompanying generic terms.

This next bit is what messes me up and I over-capitalize regularly – french fries, venetian blinds.
Adjectives derived from place-names are capitalized when the place is still an important part of the meaning: Roman history, French literature, Brussels lace. Many lose the capital when the place is no longer a significant part of the meaning: roman type, french fries, brussels sprouts (even if your word processor suggests capping). Sometimes even the original nouns lose the capital: morocco (leather); plaster of paris; china. Check the dictionary when in doubt. If following the dictionary causes troubling inconsistencies, as in The French windows were fitted with venetian blinds or He threw the french fries out the French window, one can ignore it and establish one’s own style for specific words in a specific work.

Other examples:

  • the Fifth Precinct, the precinct
  • the Twenty-first Congressional District, the congressional district
  • the Roman Empire, the empire
  • Kings County, Queens County, but Kings and Queens counties
  • the Indian River, the Banana River, but the Indian and Banana rivers
  • the Catskill Mountains, the Adirondack Mountains, but the Catskills and Adirondack mountains
  • Lakes Erie and Superior; the Rivers Styx and Lethe (but sometimes lowercasing lakes and rivers in this context is acceptable)

Don’t forget to check out ProofreadNOW.com if you have an important paper, presentation, work you are submitting, letter you need to send, grant application – they can proof it and employ experts in all areas to check facts and styles.

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