Capital vs. Capitol: How to Choose the Right Word

Capitol means a government building, which often has an O-like dome

capital and capitol
In the U.S. Capitol (pictured here), you'll hear talk about capital gains, capital punishment, capital cities, and capital letters.

Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images

The words "capital" and "capitol" are homophones, meaning they sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. "Capital" has many definitions, referring to government, assets, and capital letters, while "capitol" has only one: a building housing a legislative body—plus, often, the area surrounding that building.

How to Use "Capital"

The noun "capital" has several definitions: (1) a city that is a seat of government, (2) wealth in the form of money or property, (3) a nonfinancial asset or advantage, and (4) a capital letter, the type of upper-case letter used at the beginning of a sentence.

As an adjective, "capital" refers to punishment by death (as in a "capital offense") or a letter of the alphabet in the form of the capital letters A, B, C as opposed to a, b, c. The adjective "capital" can also mean excellent or highly important.

How to Use "Capitol"

The noun "capitol" refers to the building in which a legislative assembly, such as the U.S. Congress or a state legislature, does its business. Additionally, at the federal level and in many states, the neighborhood surrounding the capitol is referred to, formally or informally, as Capitol Hill.

Both words are derived from the Latin root caput, meaning “head.” "Capital" evolved from the words capitālis, meaning “of the head,” for its government sense and capitāle, or “wealth,” for its use to mean a benefit, financial or otherwise. "Capitol" comes from Capitōlium, the name of a temple dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter who once sat on the smallest of Rome’s seven hills, Capitoline Hill.

Examples

  • The capital of Alaska is Juneau.
  • The dome of the U.S. Capitol is one of the most famous man-made landmarks in America.
  • "He began to dust off the top and there found all sorts of things—a forgotten pin box, a pill box with tacks in it, two knitting needles, and an out-of-date diary on which was written in capitals: THE AIDEN CYCLE." (Christina Stead, "The Man Who Loved Children")
  • "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." (Arthur Conan Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia")
  • "Though many think capital punishment is not an effective deterrent to crime, others insist this is because criminals in the United States know they are not likely to be convicted of a capital crime and that if they are convicted, they are even less likely to be executed." (John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, "Ethics for a Brave New World")
  • He is trying to raise the capital to start a business.

How to Remember the Difference

There are two tricks for recalling the difference between the main definitions of the two words. One notes that the "o" in "capitol" looks like the spherical dome of the U.S. Capitol and the capitols of many state governments. All other uses are spelled "capital."

The other trick is to think of the "o" in "capitol" as standing for "only one," referring to the fact that "capitol" has only one meaning. Again, all other uses are spelled "capital."

Related Grammatical Concepts

When "capitol" refers to a specific building, such as the U.S. Capitol or the Colorado Capitol, it should be capitalized. It should not be capitalized when it isn't specific, as in the sentence "His goal is to visit the capitol building in every state."

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