Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Do You Know Where You're Going To?

Riddle me this:

Why did the first American settlers never capitalize north, south, east, and west?

Contestant #1: Is it because north, south, east and west are never capitalized?


Contestant #2: Is it because they were from England and the Brits don’t capitalize north, south, east, and west?


Contestant #3: Does this have anything to do with the fact that the first true American settlers were Native American Indians and they didn’t speak English?

Well, Contestant #3, you have a point but I am talking about the settlers that dressed in black and white, wore buckled shoes and hitched a ride on the Mayflower, so …


Here is the answer to the riddle, my friends.

The reason the first American settlers would never have capitalized north, south, east, or west is because we only capitalize these words when they are referring to specified regions of the country, and since the settlers had just arrived, they wouldn’t have specified any regions yet.


We don’t capitalize north, south, east and west when we’re using them to indicate compass directions, so the settlers would have used the non-capitalized versions:

Hester, I’m going to head north and see if I can find any firewood.

Would you like to settle east or west of the river, Samuel?

Today, it’s different. Now that we’ve settled all over the country, we use the words north, south, east and west to refer to specific regions of the country, not only compass directions.

When I say I am going to head to the South to visit family, I capitalize it because I am referring to this specific region:

(I am also lying because I don’t have any family there.)

I live in Southern California (a region that refers to the Los Angeles and San Diego areas), so if I said that I was going to head south, I would end up in Mexico.

But with my sense of direction, I would probably end up in Canada.


Shelly said...

I'm from a part of the country where Down Yonder and a Fur Piece North probably deserve their own capitalizations.

Janet Johnson said...

You have answered one of my burning questions about capitalization! Thank you! (seriously). :)

Shannon said...

You'd have fun in Canada. Or as I call it, America's hat.

Jeffrey Beesler said...

Do I at least get a copy of the home game?

Mark said...

If you head south to Canada wouldn't that make it America's shoe? Though this is a question I hadn't really thought on.

Dylan Fitzgerald said...

I worked for a very snooty business school a while back, and they had this "international" buffet of food in the snooty lunch room every day. There was a day when the international cuisine was Southern. They consider the South to be a foreign land. Oy vey.

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

My thanks to the person who posed this question to you, because I myself was never too clear on this.

You have answered it in your usual, highly entertaining fashion. I THANK YOU! Now I will "go and sin no more".

To your comment left on my recent 'Stuffs' installment, I replied in part with this...

Say, did you notice in this M*A*S*H blog bit that I CAPITALIZED the word "Sun" TWICE, even though no other planets were mentioned? I'm STILL a red-leather jacketed rebel! (Uh... minus the red-leather jacket these days.)

Wanted you to take note of that but feared you might not "return to the scene of the crime".

Also... I was a little surprised I didn't hear from you on the "HOT-BABES-R-US" blog bit (your ears should have been burning).

These two excellent questions you've answered recently - about capitalization of planets and north, south, et al. - will these lessons be included in your forthcoming book? If so, I want to be thanked on the acknowledgments page. Or at least, I want a free copy of the book. Or at "ultra-least", I want an autographed paid-in-full copy of it.

~ D-FensDogg
'Loyal American Underground'

Wendy Ramer, Professor said...

Not to mention that South Florida should never be included when talking about the South even though it's as far south as we can go.

Mykuljay said...

At least you would end up in Northern Canada! Thanks for the tips!

Mykuljay said...

Wendy - Why wouldn't I refer to South Florida as such? I live in Central Florida and I always capitalize it.

JDC said...

Think I just learned something new =O

DWei said...

You're more than welcome up here. We'll happily take you. :P

Jo-Ann said...

Hi Missed. It seems to me that you've already got so many useful things stored in your head that there's no room for a stoopid compass.

Well, that's the excuse I use for my abysmal sense of direction.

Terra Shield said...

I don't really know if the non-capitalisation of directions have ever been an issue here or not, but this was interesting info, no doubt.

Duncan D. Horne - the Kuantan blogger said...

Thanks for the clarification on that!

Amie Kaufman said...

Perfect explanation -- so clear, as always. You're such a natural teacher -- your blog posts always teach me something, and I'll cheerfully admit it's the stories and examples that help actually hammer it into my head. My copy editor will thank you!

Liz said...

I am the worst person at directions ever. Seriously, the worst.

Theresa Milstein said...

So that's why North and South are capitalized when talking about the Civil War.

The teacher I worked with asked me to give short lessons on grammar four days a week. I'm a little nervous.

Hold my hand: a social worker's blog said...

I learned something new today!

Thank you!