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To capitalize or not to capitalize, that is the question

April 27, 2011

If you have ever been confused about the seemingly random capitalization of “Arctic,” I have some good news for you.

The Arctic Institute of North America writes in their style manual for their journal, Arctic:

Capitalization: “Arctic” is capitalized when it is used as a noun (“the Arctic”). Used as an adjective, “arctic” is capitalized when it refers to the geographic region (i.e., Arctic communities) and lowercased when it refers to very low temperatures (i.e., arctic gale). Established names of Arctic flora and fauna are lowercased (i.e., arctic fox). The same rules apply for “subarctic.” “North” is capitalized only when referring to a specific geographical area or as part of a geographical name, never when used as a direction. “Antarctic” is always capitalized, as it refers to one of the great divisions of the earth’s surface and also to a particular continent, from which the adjective is derived.

The Institute and their journal are both well worth checking out. They are run out of the University of Calgary and seem to be quite interdisciplinary:

The institute’s mandate is to advance the study of the North American and circumpolar Arctic through the natural and social sciences, the arts and humanities and to acquire, preserve and disseminate information on physical, environmental and social conditions in the North.

You can access the journal articles from the website. Many are natural science and wildlife biology oriented with studies on bowhead whales, arctic terns, and the depletion of fish stock. But from my quick perusal, I also found brief examinations of travelogues, missionary statements and even a brief note on Lady Jane Franklin.

  1. Thanks! Helped us out with our homework — we weren’t sure about “arctic fox.” Now we are.

  2. Graham permalink

    Good to know. My field site for my research is on Ellesmere Island and I’m constantly unsure of when to capitalize Arctic in my writing. This was helpful.

    • I’m so glad! I would be interested to know what you are studying on Ellesmere Island and your take on living/working in the north.

      And on the topic of style guides, I had reason to discuss when to capitalize with an editor for the University of Alaska Press and her advice was simply to be consistent. Therefore, at the time I chose capitalization for the Arctic (as a noun) and lower case for arctic communities (as an adjective); the same for the Subarctic. North was tricky for me, but because my argument turned around disrupting a singular and controlling northern imaginary, I chose to write it in lower case.

      Happy writing!

      • Graham permalink

        I haven’t made it up there yet. My first field season will be next summer. We study a supraglacial spring system at Borup Fiord Pass. The springs are rich in sulfur and have allowed for a unique geobiological system to develop. The site has been discussed in Wired Science and by the Planetary Society since the springs are considered a possible analog for Mars and Europa (a moon of Jupiter). If things go as planned, I should be on Ellesmere for two or more weeks sometime next year!

  3. I checked out the articles in Wired Science ( and Planetary Society (, really cool stuff! Thanks for bringing it to my attention, I will now spend the rest of my day reading blog posts about astrobiology in the Arctic.

    I haven’t had much time to consider it, but this is the second time in two years that I’ve run across filed work in a polar region for application in outer space. Obviously in the sciences this connection has been around for some time, but over in the humanities, I now have some exciting connections to mull over.

    • Graham permalink

      Ya, it’s pretty cool stuff. I’m excited to be involved with the research. Although a lot of research on life in extreme temperature regimes has focused on high-temperatures (like organisms living near hydrothermal vents and in hot springs), there are several labs that are also considering how life interacts with cold environments and what that could mean for the history of life on Earth.

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