Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Get It Right: Capital and Capitol

Today we have a new addition to our Get It Right series, in which we try to help eliminate unnecessary mistakes in the English language. This time we're focusing on the words capital and capitol, which are often confused by native and non-native speakers alike. Hopefully our explanation will ensure that you're never left wondering if you've chosen the correct term again!


The word capital originated as the Latin word capitalis before making its way into English via Old French. It has multiple definitions as both a noun and an adjective, which only adds to the confusion regarding its usage.

The most popular usage of capital is likely when it refers to the administrative center of a country or seat of government. For example, London is the capital of England. The word can also be used to refer to a place associated with a certain thing, such as the Italian city of Milan being considered a "fashion capital".

The United States Capitol's columns have beautiful capitals.
The term capital can also be used in various ways to refer to wealth, often in the form of money or assets which can be used for investment purposes. If you're more interested in architectural terms than business jargon, then you should also know that the broader section at the top of a pillar or column is also called a capital.

It is also used as both a noun and an adjective to refer to uppercase letters, so we could say that this sentence begins with a "capital I". Finally, capital is used in terms such as "capital punishment" and "capital offense" to refer to the death penalty.


The word capitol, on the other hand, has just one definition. It refers only to the building where a legislature meets, such as the United States Capitol which sits on Washington D.C.'s Capitol Hill. Unsurprisingly, capitol also originated in Latin, though it was a distinct term: capitolium.

While we suppose it does make sense to have separate words for the city that is the administrative center and the building (generally located in the city) where all the administrative decisions are made, they could have at least used terms that weren't quite so similar!

In any case, unless you often find yourself talking about legislative buildings, you're almost always going to want to use the word capital.

Is there another common English spelling or grammar mistake that you wish we'd address? Let us know in the comments below.