151. Ways of Using Compass Words



Compass words like “North” are usable with various confusing partner words and adjective endings


By “compass words”, I mean North, South, East and West (used both alone and in combinations like North-West and South-South-East), plus related forms with the  endings -ward(s), -ern and -erly, including southern and southerly, whose pronunciation features in 41. Unexpected Vowels in Derived Words. Compass words may be written either with or without a capital letter (see 62. Choices with Capital Letters). They can easily occur in academic and professional writing because geographical statements are quite common there.

There are a number of ways in which compass words can be used in English. The aim here is to describe, illustrate and explain as many of these as possible, and to offer some general guidelines for avoiding errors with them that are sometimes made by speakers of other mother tongues.



Compass nouns can be used as the subject or object of a verb, usually with the, to refer to a subdivision of a previously-identified country or area, like this:

(a) The north is wild and uninhabited.

The reason for the is that compass nouns are normally countable, a characteristic typically requiring their singular form to have the or a or equivalent (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”), and the is better than a because a “unique” concept is being expressed (there is only one north, south, east and west in any particular place).

In an alternative use, compass point nouns are used with or without the to express the ultimate compass points of the whole world, such as the North Pole, e.g.:

(b) (The) West is where the sun sets.

Outside of this use, lone compass words without the are likely to be understood as adverbs rather than nouns. Consider this:

(c) Global warming means the Sahara is moving south.

If south here was truly a noun, it would be the object of moving – naming something being moved – and would hence indicate nonsensically that the movement belonged to south rather than the Sahara. The actual meaning of south here, of course, is “in a southward direction”, the idea of “direction” being a common one of adverbs (see 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs).



It is quite common for compass nouns to be combined with to the. However, the meaning is not always the same. The following are different ways of interpreting to the south:

I) IN A SOUTHERLY DIRECTION (directional adverb). This is the same meaning as that of south by itself in (c). It indicates movement not within a specific area but just “southward” or “closer to the South Pole”.

II) INTO THE SOUTHERN REGION (directional adjective and adverb). This indicates movement within a specific area. Examples are:

(d) ADJECTIVE) Routes to the south (of Europe) are likely to meet mountains.

(e) (ADVERB) Young people are going to the south (of their country) to find work.

When sentences like these are spoken in a more northern part of the same area, the underlined words can be replaced informally by down south. Related expressions are up north (spoken in the south) and out east/west.

III) JUST BEYOND THE SOUTHERN BORDER (positional adjective and adverb). This indicates not movement, but merely a particular external position, like this:

(f) (ADJECTIVE) A country to the south (of Turkey) is Syria.

(g) (ADVERB) The main Silk Road passes to the north (of Afghanistan).

We understand here that Syria and The main Silk Road are respectively just beyond the borders of Turkey and Afghanistan. This understanding could also be an alternative one of (d): instead of referring to routes going into the south of Europe, (d) could be about routes existing just beyond that south. The fact that the positional usage of to the is about the outside of a particular region, rather than the inside that the directional usage involves, is a key point to remember.

Besides to, other common prepositions usable before the + compass word are from, in and out of. They have their normal meanings. In the, like directional to the, can be replaced by the more informal up or down if the speaker is in the opposite part of the same region, e.g. is down (= in the) south. Up and down are also usable by themselves without a compass word to mean “visiting from the south/north” (see 154. Lone Prepositions after BE).

In addition, when compass words are combined with a following of, adding or omitting an earlier the makes an important difference. With it, e.g. the South of France, a noun phrase is created and of means “inside”. Without the, however, an adjective or adverb phrase is created and of means “somewhere beyond”, as in this example:

(h) Algeria lies directly south of France.

The meaning here is similar to, but not the same as, that of the positional to the south (of) illustrated in (f). The difference is that with to the the two regions are suggested to be touching, while without it, as in (h), the distance between them is unclear. It would be wrong to add to the to (h) because Algeria and France are separated by sea.



Some adjective-like uses of compass words require the adjective forms with -ern or -erly, while others keep the base forms, rather like nouns acting as adjectives (see 38. Nouns Used like Adjectives). Readers are invited to analyse the following common expressions in search of rules for choosing between the different possibilities:

a north wind

a southerly breeze

an easterly direction/course

East London

Southern Ireland/France/Italy

South Germany/China

New South Wales

Southern Europe/Africa

South Africa/North Korea

West(ern) Africa

North/South America

The West Indies

Western Samoa

The South Pole/The North Star

The Southern Cross

My feeling about these is that no definitive rules can be given because there are so many anomalies and exceptions. However, I offer the following observations. The -ly ending indicates direction, either towards or away from the compass point. A southerly breeze is usually understood as coming from the south, but an easterly direction would likely be towards the east (unless it had from in front).

The absence of -ly before wind is interesting. I suspect that it indicates generality – no link with a particular place or time, like this:

(i) A/The south-west wind brings rain.

Conversely, -ly words might be preferred when talking about a wind in a specific place at a specific time:

(j) A northerly wind was blowing when the ship set sail.

For more on the difference between general and specific meaning, see 89. Using “the” with General Meaning.

East London in the list above is part of a city. Most city parts seem to be expressed with basic compass words, though exceptions can probably be found (Western Paris?). I would suggest that a basic compass word indicates a widely-recognised city district, while one with –ern shows the opposite. In Britain, a basic compass word placed after a city name – e.g. Bristol South-West – indicates a district whose people elect a politician to represent it (see 137. Words that Reflect English Culture).

A further clue to the use of -ern is perhaps obtainable from the difference between South Africa (the country) and Southern Africa (the whole of Africa south of the Equator, including South Africa). The names of countries usually seem to have the basic compass word, while parts of countries and of continents prefer -ern. Other country parts with -ern include Southern England, Eastern USA and Western Peru.

Exceptions to this trend can usually be explained away. The countries of Southern Ireland and Western Samoa perhaps have -ern because they originated (in colonial times) as parts of larger countries. On the other hand, the country parts of South China and South Germany may lack -ern because they are large enough to be countries in their own right (indeed South Germany was once very like one). Alternatively, these regions may have some political as well as geographical status, just as New South Wales does.

The reason for not saying *Northern (and *Southern) America might be that these regions are thought of as whole continents, not parts of one. Less easy to explain, however, is the continental subdivision West Africa, which seems more common than Western Africa. Perhaps both are possible, but the former has become more popular for an unknown reason.

Finally, the trend of using basic compass words for wholes and -ern words for parts (except in cities) also seems evident in The South Pole and The North Star. These are not just in the south/north, they are those ultimate points. On the other hand, the star constellation known as The Southern Cross is just a feature of the sky in the Southern Hemisphere.


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