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Capital vs. capitol

As a noun, capital refers to (1) a city that serves as a center of government, (2) wealth in the form of money or property, and (3) a capital letter. As an adjective, it means (1) principal, (2) involving financial assets, and (3) deserving of the death penalty. There are other definitions of capital, but these are the most commonly used ones.

Capitol has two very specific definitions (outside ancient Rome): (1) a U.S. state legislature building, and (2) the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. State capitols are located in the capital cities of U.S. states, and the Capitol is located in the capital city of the U.S. If you’re not talking about any of these capitol buildings, then the word you want is probably capital.

The Capitol building located in Washington, D.C. is spelled with a capital C, but state capitol buildings ordinarily don’t have the capital (which is not to say that some writers don’t capitalize them anyway).

Examples

The ability to expand depends on access to capital. [Capital Spectator]

Wilderness — with a capital “W,” according to the Wilderness Act — offers the values of “solitude,” and “primitive, unconfined recreation.” [New York Times]

The House will take up a bill this week adding one statue of a District luminary to the halls of the Capitol. [Washington Post]

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court banned capital punishment, but the decision was overturned in 1976. [Columbia Missourian]

You are a capital fellow, Planchet. [Ten Years Later, Alexandre Dumas]

What it does have is the state capitol building, Vermont State House, with its impressive gold leaf dome backdropped by the wooded hills of Hubbard Park. [Guardian]

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Comments

  1. Cherry has spent 28 years at the Capitol as a lawmaker and lieutenant governor, …

    According to the definition above, this is used INcorrectly since it is capitalized (BTW not capitolized)

  2. Westmorlandia says:

    Rick – I think the statement that “The U.S. Capitol is capitalized. State capitol buildings are not” is slightly misleading. The word should be lower-case when referring to the generic type of building (i.e. a building housing a US state legislature), but capitalized when referring to the proper name of a building (e.g. the US Capitol building in Washington, or any specific state capitol that is known as “the Capitol”).

  3. Hennighg says:

    Rick, Westmorlandia — you mean it’s ‘capital letters’ and not ‘capitol letters’? Ye gads! I’m going to write to my state Capitol and make sure the capitol building has the right kind of capital letters on it, because they certainly have the capital to make sure of it!

  4. While the definitions are overall correct, little hard to value a grammar site with a typo in the explanation.

    “If you’re not talking about any of these capitol buildings, then the world you want is probably capital.”
    It is actually the WORD not WORLD that they would be looking for in the above example.

    • Hey, we make typos just like anyone else (and typos have nothing to do with grammar, by the way). We actually just revised that paragraph yesterday and obviously neglected to proofread before hitting submit. Thanks for catching the error. As we have around 1,500 posts that are each revised regularly, these mistakes are bound to happen, and we appreciate it when people politely point them out to us.

    • “overall correct” is awkward, and your first sentence’s main clause lacks a subject.

  5. This helps. Thank you.

  6. Ndellos says:

    a column to hold up a building is known as a capital.

  7. Ndellos says:

    The top part of a column is the capital

  8. I’m not trying to be a difficult but if a Capitol/capitol is always a building is saying ‘Capitol building’ redundant?

    “What it does have is the state capitol building ..”

    Thx

    • It is technically redundant, how ever, when being spoken out loud it is useful in differentiating the two words. For example, when talking about a particular state, say Rhode Island, someone could ask either, “Where is the capitol?” or “Where is the capital?”. Both questions sound the exact same, but the answer to the first question would be “Smith St” (because it’s referring to the location of a building within a city) while the answer to the second question would be simply “Providence”. So asking, “Where is the capitol building?” leaves nothing up to interpretation for the listener.

      This being said, it is certainly redundant to say “capitol building” when written. I imagine it’s often written this way since people are used to speaking it this way,

  9. kelli shewmaker says:

    also, the streets in dc are capitol (not capital): for ex, north capitol street (north, south, and east. no west).

  10. Mary Jane Corcoran Roethlin says:

    So if you wanted to name a theater The Capit_l, which noun would you use?

  11. I guess the language is changing to suit the young. “Capital” used to refer to money. Spelling and grammar has gone the way of the cigar store Indian.

    • New Java says:

      Totally agree with you. Language changes. The Internet is the latest ecole of language with “authorities” putting forth their revisions as definitions. I guess its a sign you are getting old when words no longer mean what they used to mean. For the first 30 years of my life “capital” had nothing to do with politics! Today, per this article, it has supplanted capitol. Previously, capital connoted something on top or something stacked such as a capital pile of money or a capital cap. :-)

    • Language is changing, but you are wrong here.. Capital does refer to money, but it has also always meant what was stated above.

  12. Chris Bristol says:

    Any explanation as to why the differences in spelling? Is there a different derivation for each word?

    • Matt Beeman says:

      Yes, both from Latin, Capitol is from Capitolium (the name of a temple), and capital is from capitalis/caput/capitulum meaning head, first, most important

      • Avery Kate Hardin says:

        Matt: this is a great bit of help. When I read articles and such that confuse these terms, it irks me to no end. However, this info will help me explain the difference when I am asked. Thanks for the input.

  13. Dudley Morris says:

    Also, don’t forget: Capitol Records. :)

  14. Vistaprime says:

    would Sacramento be the capital or capitol of California?

  15. PAUL TAYLOR says:

    This is probably the singular most idiotic homonym in the English language. It only serves to make smart people sound dumb, while making dumb people sound smart.

    • Matt Hague says:

      Too bad you confused singular for single, idiotic for absurd, ridiculous, superfluous, trivial or any number of other adjectives which would actually make sense when applied here, homonyms for homophones and forgot to substantiate your statement. A few minor changes and that post could have been perfect.

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