Capital vs. Capitol: What’s the Difference?

English homophones can trip people up and make them use the wrong word. These word pairings sound the same, but they carry different spellings and different meanings. You don’t notice the difference when you say these words in everyday conversation. Once you try to write them down on a piece of paper or type them on the computer, however, that’s when you wonder about how to spell them.

Today, we’re going to focus on two commonly confused words in the English language: capital and capitol. The difference between these two words is as subtle as good night and goodnight. Instead of a space, however, the difference between capital and capitol is a single letter.

What is Capital?

Capital can take on many meanings. You can use this word as a noun or an adjective.

Capital as a Noun

Correct word usage: Taipei is the capital (not capitol) of Taiwan. Photo by Travis Wise via Flickr Creative Commons

As a noun, the definition of capital can refer to an uppercase letter. The letter “T” in “Thailand” is a capital.

Capital could also refer to accumulated possessions, income or net worth. If you have accumulated sufficient capital, for instance, you could consider investing that money in a startup venture.

You could also refer to a city as a capital if it serves as the seat of government for a country or territory. Here are a couple of examples: The capital of Taiwan is Taipei. Mogadishu is the capital of Somalia.

You could also use capital to refer to a preeminent city of some activity or industry. Paris, for instance, is a global art capital because of its cutting-edge art galleries, expansive museums and spectacular medieval monuments.

Capital as an Adjective

When you use capital in a sentence as an adjective, the word can refer to something of great importance or seriousness. Safety, for instance, is a capital concern.

You could also use the word “capital” as a synonym excellent or first-rate. An example statement is, “Visiting the beach during the summer break sounds like a capital idea.”

Here’s a piece of trivia for you: the use of capital as a synonym for “excellent” was common back in the 19th century. This usage, however, fell dramatically during the 20th century.

What is Capitol?

A capitol refers to a building where national legislative bodies meet. The Capitol in the United States is a building in Washington DC. This is the place where the U.S. Congress meets. Besides the U.S., some nations, such as Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba, have capitols that provide offices for legislators.

Should You Capitalize the “C” in Capitol?

When you are talking about the national building in D.C., you spell Capitol with a capital “C.”

When you’re referring to a particular state capitol building, however, the capitalization depends on the style you follow. The AP style guide requires you to capitalize the word. Other style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, say that you should keep the word in lowercase. Make sure you check your style guide (and stay consistent) if you follow one.

Differentiating Capital vs. Capitol

Are you still getting capital and capitol confused? Here’s a simple tip to help you know the difference. Whenever you are struggling to choose between these two similar words, ask yourself this question:

“Am I referring to the building where the federal or state government conducts business?”

Use capitol if your answer is yes. Otherwise, stick with capital. That’s all there is to it.

Quiz Time: Using Capital and Capitol in a Sentence

Think you can get a perfect score in this capital vs. capitol quiz? Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Let’s apply what you’ve learned so far by giving you this capital vs. capitol quiz. Choose the appropriate word in the following sentences:

  1. Legislators in the United States pass laws in the (capital, capitol).
  2. When the pandemic started in 2020, it has prevented me from touring the White House. Instead, I went to see the (capital, capitol). I found the building to be architecturally interesting.
  3. The (capital, capitol) of the United States is Washington D.C.
  4. People call the area surrounding the U.S. (capital, capitol) as (capital, capitol) Hill, as the phrase refers to an actual building.
  5. One of my goals in life is to open an auto repair shop. Unfortunately, I lack the (capital, capitol) required to get my dream business started.
  6. Instead of doing nothing at home, consider taking up activities that will boost your mental (capital, capitol).
  7. My dad, a professional photographer, loves to take pictures of the many (capital, capitol) buildings in the United States.
  8. Many consider Detroit as the automotive (capital, capitol) of the world.
  9. A legislator is looking to raise (capital, capitol) to fund a long overdue renovation project on the state (capital, capitol).
  10. When you are addressing a letter to the governor, make sure that you properly use (capital, capitol) letters. You’ll need to send this letter to the state’s (capital, capitol) building.

We hope that this capital vs. capitol article and quiz will help you easily distinguish the two words. As long as you associate the word “capitol” to a building, you should be able to avoid errors with these homophone pairs.

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