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When is the use of “north” more appropriate than “northern” and vice versa?

Are there any differences in meanings of South vs Southern, North vs Northern, and so on, when used in to modify a location? If yes, what is it?

One example I can think of is that South America normally means the area where Brazil, Argentina, etc. are, and Southern America normally means the southern part of the US. Is this only a special case or is this an instance of a more generalized rule?

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Southern America is rarely used to refer to the American South, IMO. It's usually the American South, or more simply, the South. In a more geographic sense, it's the southern part of the US or southern US. –  Jimi Oke Jun 9 '11 at 17:32
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marked as duplicate by MrHen, Dusty, psmears, kiamlaluno, RegDwigнt Jun 9 '11 at 21:13

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In the use case you're looking at, you use South when you want a noun form, either on its own, or as part of an established compound noun. You use Southern when you need an adjective to modify the name of a place, but where South Foo is not an established phrase. Some examples:

  • South Africa - Here, an established name for a particular place. If you said Southern Africa you could really mean any reasonable area containing the southern end of the African continent.

  • West Memphis (or East St. Louis) - These are the names of established cities just across the Mississipi River from the more famous cities lacking the cardinal direction. Note that if you said Western Memphis or Eastern St. Louis, you would be referring to portions of the main city, itself.

  • The North Shore - This is an established place name in at least a few places, but note that if it isn't, you would use the northern shore of Foo.

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South Africa is a country, just saying :) Largely concur with your argument, but there are some exceptions. For instance, Northern Ireland does not follow the same logic... –  Jimi Oke Jun 9 '11 at 17:40
    
@Jimi Oke - Right, South Africa is an established place's name is sort of what I was going after. Northern Ireland is a great counter-example though. I wonder if the naming has been influenced by the strife associated with it (e.g. those who wanted it to remain part of the Republic of Ireland may have wanted to simply treat it as the northern area, rather than a distinct place) –  Dusty Jun 9 '11 at 17:52
    
@Jimi Oke - Oh, I see, I said South Africa was a region. I guess I meant place, but it's a good catch. Will edit. –  Dusty Jun 9 '11 at 17:53
    
@Dusty (per your second comment): exactly what I was after :) –  Jimi Oke Jun 9 '11 at 18:14
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@Dusty - no, the nearest is people in Eire wanting to be gracious calling it 'the north' –  mgb Jun 10 '11 at 1:57
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