US Election Day 2016 is getting awfully close. (We’re not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.) As this day inches toward the present, you may be seeing more and more media coverage (in both traditional and online outlets) about what’s going to happen in Washington, DC on November 8. In all of this talk, there’s something that may have you a tiny bit confused: why some people are using the word “capital” whereas others are using “capitol.” What’s the difference between “capital” vs. “capitol”?
The words “capital” (with an “a”) vs. “capitol” (with an “o”) look very similar – they differ by just one letter. Because of this, you may be wondering whether “capital” vs. “capitol” are just different ways of spelling the same word. After all, “color” vs. “colour” are different ways of spelling the same word (in different dialects of English). The same is true of “organize” vs. “organise.”
However, “capital” vs. “capitol” are different words with distinct meanings. (Of course. English wasn’t suddenly going to go easy on us, was it?). Because we do need to keep both words in our vocabularies, let’s sort out what they mean.
Let’s start with “capital” because it’s the word that most of you probably use more often. In everyday English, “capital” can mean 3 things: the place in a region where the government is located, financial property, or the uppercase version of a letter. We’ll break these down.
“Capital” as the geographical home of a government
When we use “capital” to refer to the geographical location of a government, we use it like this:
- “The capital of Canada is Ottawa.”
- “Washington, DC is the capital of the US.”
- “Madrid is the capital of Spain.”
Regardless of whether a region is the home of a provincial, state, or national government, it can be called a “capital.”
Note that you can also use “capital” to refer to a place that’s well known for a particular product or service. For example, you could say that Paris is one of the fashion capitals of the world. Hello, Dior and Chanel!
“Capital” as financial property
“Capital” can also refer to money or other assets. When we use “capital” in this way, we use it in sentences like these:
- “They’re trying to raise capital for their new company.”
- “Tom lost all of the brand’s capital when he made some bad investment decisions.”
- “We can use our remaining capital to cover our costs over the next year.”
When “capital” is used to refer to financial property, it’s usually used to refer to the assets held by a company instead of by a person. After all, when was the last time you were eavesdropping on someone’s conversation at Starbucks and heard the person talk about his or her personal capital? Probably never.
“Capital” as the uppercase version of a letter
This is probably the most straightforward meaning of capital. When we use “capital” to refer to letters, we use it like this:
- “Look for the building with the capital letter “A” on it.”
- “Please write in all capital letters when completing this form.”
- “If you write emails in all capital letters, people might think you’re yelling at them.” (If you didn’t know this one, take note!)
Okay, so we now know 3 different meanings of “capital.” So what’s the difference between “capital” vs. “capitol”? The meaning of “capitol” is related to the government definition of “capital.” A “capitol” (with an “o”) is a building where lawmakers (the legislative branch of a government) meet. We use it in sentences like these:
- “The protestors marched angrily toward the capitol.”
- “The capitol has undergone extensive renovations.”
- “There is no air conditioning in the capitol, so at least one person faints each year.” (Yikes!)
Ever wonder why the home of the US Congress is called “Capitol Hill,” with capitol spelled with an “o”? It’s because Capitol Hill is where members of Congress (the country’s lawmakers) meet. It all makes sense now, doesn’t it?
Bringing It All Together
“Capital” vs. “capitol” may seem confusing because they look so similar. The good news, though, is that unless you work in politics, you’re probably going to use “capital” much more than you would use “capitol.” And because “capital” is the spelling you’re probably more familiar with, you’ll likely use the right word by default in most cases. So you may not have much of a “capital” vs. “capitol” problem on your hands after all.
Where things do get a bit confusing when it comes to “capital” vs. “capitol” is when you’re talking about politics. That’s because “capital” vs. “capitol” both refer to places where the government sits: “capital” is the overall region where the entire government at a particular level sits. “Capitol” is the building where the lawmakers sit.
You can remember the difference between “capital” vs. “capitol” in the political context by noting that “a” comes before “o.” (And let’s be honest – this means that “a” is kind of more important as a letter than “o” is.) That’s why “capital” (with an “a”) is the overall place where the entire government sits whereas “capitol” (with an “o”) is the specific building where just one branch of government sits.
Want to read about other commonly confused words? Check out our post on the difference between “hone” and “home.”
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