At the beginning of a sentence is obvious.

I'm referring to the following examples:

  1. A handful of earth.
  2. The earth under this house.
  3. The earth beneath my feet.
  4. What on earth?
  5. The heavens above and the earth below.
  6. The earth moved.
  7. We returned quickly to earth.

Lower: 1,2,3,4 Upper: 7 Not sure: 5,6

9 Answers 9


Generally speaking, I would write earth when referring to soil, the ground, or land as opposed to sea. I would capitalize Earth when referring to the planet (and even more specifically, our planet; there are many earths out there). In short: if it's a proper noun, it should be capitalized.

  1. A handful of earth.
  2. The earth under this house.
  3. The earth beneath my feet.

I agree that earth should not be capitalized here. However, I could come up with contexts in which I would capitalize it even in these sentences, though they would be rather poetic or sci-fi (read: far-fetched).

 4. What on earth?

I would capitalize Earth here. To me, this question is equivalent to "What on this planet?", "What in this world?", "What on Mother Earth?", and not to "What on soil?" or "What on land?". (If you want a comprehensive, highly scientific study, then I am happy to report that out of the first 30 Google results for "What on Earth", Earth is capitalized in 25 cases.)

 5. The heavens above and the earth below.

Soil, ground, land as opposed to the sky. No need to capitalize.

Edit: as Neil Fein points out in the comments, this could refer to the planet in certain contexts, in which case I would capitalize it (cf. 1, 2, and 3).

 6. The earth moved.

It depends. Did the Earth (proper noun) move around the Sun (proper noun), or did the earth (soil, ground) move because there was an earthquake?

 7. We returned quickly to earth.

I agree with you that here it should be capitalized.

  • 1
    I have one nit to pick, with #5: "The heavens above and the earth below." While in most cases I would agree with you that this refers to the ground beneath one's feet, I would capitalize if the context made it clear that this were referring to the planet. (The same logic you used for #1, 2, and 3.) Aug 31, 2010 at 22:34
  • 1
    @Neil: absolutely, I was actually thinking about that for quite a while. But that also got me thinking whether we should also capitalize Heavens, and I didn't want to open that can of worms. It's late at night and I can't think clearly.
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 31, 2010 at 22:40
  • How about capitalizing Earth (the planet) when there's no article and not capitalizing it when there is? Thus: The inner planets include Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. And: The satellite was returned to the earth on the space shuttle.
    – moioci
    Sep 1, 2010 at 2:13
  • @moioci: "...and this computer shall be called... THE Earth." That's not bad, but it doen't hold up. Think about "digging a hole in the earth"; I think this has to be a context-based decision. Sep 1, 2010 at 7:04
  • @RegDwight: Insomnia and StackExchange don't mix well. I've found that out as well! Sep 1, 2010 at 7:05

According to the Wikipedia Manual of Style, it appears your examples should be as follows:

  1. A handful of earth.
  2. The earth under this house.
  3. The earth beneath my feet.
  4. What on Earth?
  5. The heavens above and the Earth below.
  6. The Earth moved.
  7. We returned quickly to Earth.

Also, I believe 5 and 6 could have either capitalization, depending whether you mean the planet Earth, or just the dirt below your feet.

  1. A handful of earth.
  2. The earth under this house.
  3. The earth beneath my feet.
  4. The heavens above and the earth below.
  5. The earth moved.

In the examples above, earth should be lowercased. In all the examples cited, earth is synonymous with the following common nouns: soil, land, dirt, terrain, ground, and world. In addition, the expression in number 6. is idiomatic but it doesn't normally refer to earthquakes, it means that something, often a sexual experience, was highly pleasurable.

For example,

  1. A handful of soil/dirt
  2. The ground under this house
  3. The land beneath my feet.
  4. The heavens above and the world (or ground) below.
  5. The terrain moved OR The world moved

I feel example 4. could go either way, Googling the phrase does not really help to clarify.

  1. What on earth?
    What on Earth?

On the first page of Google, earth is capitalised 14 times out of 20 but many of the instances cite the name of an American TV series, the titles of podcasts; events and shows; science exhibitions; they also form the name of several websites, e.g. What on Earth is Happening?; a BBC science page, and titles of books.

Cambridge Dictionary says of the phrase

what on earth

used for showing surprise:

What on earth is going on in there?

Lexico, formerly Oxford Dictionaries, has an entry for on earth, lowercased

on earth

Used for emphasis, especially in questions and negative statements.

‘who on earth would venture out in weather like this?’
‘So my question is, how on earth do you keep tabs on all of the available programming?’
‘So why on earth does he want to make yet another death-defying walk in the Grand Canyon?’

Dictionary.com uses lowercase for the following idioms

  • move heaven and earth.
    on earth, in the world:
    Where on earth have you been?

Merriam-Webster includes another idiom, earth is still spelled with a lowercase "e"

(a) heaven on earth

and when earth used to be flat,

from the four corners of the earth
People came from the four corners of the earth to see the sight

The following definition by Macmillan Dictionary

on earth

  1. used for emphasizing that someone or something is the best, worst, biggest etc in the world
    The Great Wall is the largest man-made structure on earth.

  2. nothing/nowhere etc on earth used for adding emphasis to negative statements
    Nothing on earth could get me to speak to her.

But in one dictionary, TFD, the word earth is capitalised

go to the ends of the Earth

To do all that one can in an attempt to achieve something.
I would go to the ends of the Earth to help my children.

The one sentence where I would capitalise earth is the last one

  1. We returned quickly to Earth.

The MLA Style Center says

We usually lowercase sun, moon, and earth, but, following The Chicago Manual of Style, when the does not precede the name of the planet, when earth is not part of an idiomatic expression, or when other planets are mentioned, we capitalize earth:

 The earth revolves around the sun.
 The astronauts landed on the moon.
 The space shuttle will return to Earth next year.
 The four planets closest to the sun—Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars—compose the inner solar system.

I'm surprised by their first example, it's clear that the term earth refers to the planet on which we live, and it cannot be replaced by soil, land, ground, dirt etc. Even though it is preceded by the definite article the, it does not dissuade me from wanting to capitalise that all-important "e"

Lexico provides the following example sentences

  • ‘The discovery suggests that life could exist on planets very different from Earth.’
  • ‘The course of life on planet Earth might even turn out to be described by such a picture.’
  • ‘Mercury is also the only planet other than Earth that has a global magnetic field.’
  • ‘Imagine a perturbation of the Earth's orbit big enough to change the size of the sun in the sky.’

In none of the above examples could the word earth be substituted with any of counterparts without affecting or changing its meaning substantially.

Interestingly, in the article Scott Kelly’s Year in Space, published in February, 2016. The New York Times journalist cleverly avoids using the article with Earth.

  • The International Space Station zips around Earth at more than 17,000 miles per hour, or once every 90 minutes.

  • Of course, on the space station, Mr. Kelly was never more than about 250 miles from Earth.

  • Water is heavy and expensive to transport from Earth, so for efficiency, water is continually recycled.

  • Whatever Earthly things Mr. Kelly may have been missing during the mission, the Internet was not one of them.


I would write Earth when referring to the planet where we live because it is a proper noun (like Mars, and Venus, for example).

Looking at the New Oxford American Dictionary, it's reported that

The earth is the third planet from the sun in the solar system, orbiting between Venus and Mars at an average distance of 90 million miles (149.6 million km) from the sun, and has one natural satellite, the moon.

The definition for earth as a noun starts with

  1. (also Earth) the planet on which we live; the world: the diversity of life on earth.

As for the example phrases you wrote, I would write them as

A handful of earth.
The earth under this house.
The earth beneath my feet.
What on earth?
The Heavens above and the Earth below.
The earth moved.
We returned quickly to Earth.

I wrote earth on the fourth phrase because it's a way of saying, which has a different meaning from What is happening on Earth? I am actually not 100% sure on how I would wrote earth in that case.
In the earth moved I wrote earth because the word is not referring to the planet (I suppose it is the sentence you say when there have been a quake).

  • Can you clarify which you would capitalise then, as I did with my lower/upper/unsure note? I think I understand and agree with this answer but think that 5 could be both? Aug 31, 2010 at 21:51
  • @Neil: I am sorry; I forgot that part.
    – apaderno
    Aug 31, 2010 at 22:57

So, if you can replace earth with 'dirt' or 'land' or any common noun - lower case. If you can replace Earth with Duluth or Mars or any proper noun then capitalize it.


Earth is capitalized when it's a name (proper noun of our planet), and not when it's a noun (referring to a planet, its soil, its land...)

Planet Earth, I was back to Earth after two years, I'm not on this earth to be a slave, the gravity close to (the) earth is not the same than in altitude.

When earth is preceded by the, this is a priori a noun.

  1. A handful of earth.
  2. The earth under this house.
  3. The earth beneath my feet.
  4. What on Earth?
  5. The heavens above and the earth below.
  6. The earth moved (if this is the land, but Earth moves in space)
  7. We returned quickly to Earth.

Source: Earth (capitalization)


Style guides vary on the subject, for example the Chicago Manual of Style says that we usually lowercase "sun", "moon", and "earth", but when "the" does not precede the name of the planet, when "earth" is not part of an idiomatic expression, or when other planets are mentioned, we capitalize "earth." On the other hand, NASA suggest that "Earth", "Sun" and "Moon" be always capitalized when referring to the celestial bodies and recommend against using the definite article "the" in those cases (see http://history.nasa.gov/styleguide.html).

In most cases, I would says that if it is preceded by the definite article "the" it is not usually capitalized (the same when referring to the sun or the moon).

When discussing of Earth as a planet or celestial body, it is usually capitalized when it refers to its proper name.

When the meaning is soil or ground, or part of a common saying such as "What on earth?" it is not capitalized.

So in the sentences 1 through 6 above, earth should NOT be capitalized.

"7. We returned quickly to earth" depends on whether we actually went to space or we came back to reality. If we came back from space, it should be capitalized otherwise it is not.

  • I meant it in a prescriptive way, but, of course, people should follow their own style guide and be consistent. The Chicago Manual of Style says that we usually lowercase "sun", "moon", and "earth", but when "the" does not precede the name of the planet, when "earth" is not part of an idiomatic expression, or when other planets are mentioned, we capitalize "earth." Jul 11, 2018 at 19:19
  • If I understand your last comment correctly, that doesn't seem equivalent to saying that "earth/Earth" is never capitalized if it is preceded by "the": for example, the following sentence from the NASA website ("The minimum distance from the Earth to Mars is about 33.9 million miles (54.6 million kilometers)") uses "the", but also mentions another planet. It seems like CMoS would call for capitalized "Earth" because that sentence does meet one of the listed criteria for using capitalization.
    – herisson
    Jul 11, 2018 at 19:26
  • Style guides seems to vary on the subject. NASA Style Guide (history.nasa.gov/styleguide.html) seems much simpler. The summary is that it depends what you are writing and what style guide you are following as long as you are consistent in applying the rules you chose to follow. Jul 11, 2018 at 19:44
  • Of course, I edited to clarify. Jul 11, 2018 at 20:01
  • 1
    Hi, Marc Moisan, and welcome to English Language & Usage. I think your reference to the NASA Style Guide would be an excellent addition to your answer and should be included in it. In particular, please consider adding its discussion of "earth" versus "Earth" and of the use of "the" before the names of celestial bodies to your answer as a block quote. If you do, I will gladly upvote the answer—not because NASA'a take on the question settles the matter, but because it represents an interesting and thoughtful view from an important source regarding how to handle the style issue involved.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 11, 2018 at 20:05

In reference to the claim (There are many earths out there). There are not. There may be many Earth-like plants, but unless we are delving into parallel universe theories, there is but one Earth. Incidentally, the formal designation of planet Earth is Terra. It's inhabitants are Terran. That said, if referring to planet Earth, it is a proper noun and should be capitalised, even in the case of "what on Earth", which is a reference to the realm not the substance.

  • 2
    Hi Garry, welcome to EL&U. Given that your last sentence (which is the only part of your post that answers the question) is simply a repetition of several of the other answers, and your first sentence is in response to another answer, this post would have been better as a comment. Comments are a privilege requiring 50 reputation points, but you can easily earn these points by posting good answers (each upvote earns you 10 pts) or questions (upvotes earn 5 pts). See How to Answer for further guidance, and take the EL&U Tour. :-) Jan 2, 2019 at 0:53

The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors says: 'cap. only in astronomical contexts and in a list of planets'. Definitely 'What on earth?', which is parallel with 'What in the world?', and 'earth' when contrasted with 'heaven(s)': this is not an astronomical context.

I looked this up because I'm proofreading a book which includes '(the) Earth', 'the earth's crust' AND 'the Earth's crust', 'the earth's surface', 'between the heavens and the earth', 'earth-shattering', 'conditions of the Earth', 'big Earth data'. Bit of a dog's dinner, but I'm inclining to the view that if in doubt, it should be 'earth'.

  • Welcome to English Language and Usage. Please take the tour and when you have a moment, read-up in the help center about how we work. Apr 2, 2020 at 14:06

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