Capital vs. Capitol: How to Choose the Right Word

Capitol is a government building, while all other uses are capital

Capitol building

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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, and (3) a capital letter, the type of uppercase 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 form 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 that once sat on the smallest of Rome’s seven hills, Capitoline Hill.

When referring to a specific capitol, such as the U.S. Capitol or the Colorado Capitol, the word should be capitalized. When referring to a generic, nonspecific seat of government, make it lowercase.

Examples

Here are examples of sentences that use capital and capitol correctly:

  • The capital of Alaska is Juneau. The word here refers to the city in which the seat of government is located.
  • The dome of the U.S. Capitol is one of the most famous man-made landmarks in America. Here the word refers to the building, not the city.
  • Raising sufficient capital before we start to build is a capital idea. In the first usage, capital refers to wealth; in the second, it means excellent.
  • The district attorney still hasn't decided whether to charge the suspect with a capital offense or a lesser crime, such as manslaughter. Here capital means punishable by death. Its usage comes from the fact that death originally came by decapitation.
  • Proper nouns begin with a capital letter. Here capital means uppercase.

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.

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