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Capitalization of Governmental Words

When you write about or to a governmental agency, do you wonder when to capitalize? Here are some simple rules to help you.

Rule: When you use the complete names of departments, capitalize. You may also capitalize a shortened form of a department. Do not capitalize when these words are used as adjectives or generically.

Examples:
the United Nations General Assembly
the General Assembly
Congress
a congressional committee

Rule: Capitalize civil titles only when used with the name following or when addressing someone directly.

Examples:
Councilman James Harris
the councilman
James Harris, councilman
How are you voting, Councilman?
President Obama
the president

Rule: If you are working on government documents or you are representing a government agency, then you may capitalize words like City, County, and District when they stand alone.

Example: The County will implement the plan approved by the voters last June.

Rule: When you refer back to a proper noun using a shortened version of the original name, you may capitalize it.

Examples:
The District Water Plan allocates … The Plan calls for …
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has taken the case. The Bureau has sent out a bulletin to other federal departments to enlist their help in capturing the fugitive.

However, if you are not working on government documents or are not representing a government agency, do not capitalize generic or shortened terms.

Examples:
The county will implement the plan …
The plan calls for …
The bureau has sent out a bulletin

Posted on Thursday, May 29, 2008, at 2:18 am


18 Comments

18 Responses to “Capitalization of Governmental Words”

  1. Deborah says:

    The full name of a U.S. estate tax form is: Form 706 United States Estate (and Generation-Skipping Transfer) Tax Return. When referring to an estate tax return and estate tax, what are the rules for capitalization of “federal” and when referring to the Return itself, if never properly named in a paragraph?

    Your spouse’s Federal exemption…
    … a Federal Estate Tax Return.
    … shelter from Federal tax.
    … the Federal exemption.
    … Federal taxes.

    Thank you in advance for your help.

    • Jane says:

      The word federal when used generically as an adjective would not be capitalized. If it refers to a governmental body that uses it as part of its name, such as Federal Trade Commission, it would be capitalized. Regarding the tax return, if you are writing the name of a specific tax return form, it is considered a proper noun and would be capitalized.

      Form 706 United States Estate Tax Return
      your spouse’s federal exemption
      a federal estate tax return
      shelter from federal tax
      the federal exemption
      federal taxes

  2. Barbara G. says:

    I question your statement: “Rule: When you refer back to a proper noun using a shortened version of the original name, you may capitalize it.”
    Isn’t the phrase “refer back” tautological, because “refer” means to look back?

    • Jane says:

      My copy of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has a Usage Note specifically dealing with the belief that “refer back” is redundant. In short, the Usage Note explains that the “objection is misplaced. In fact, an expression can refer either to something that has already been mentioned or to something that is yet to be mentioned . . .”

  3. Rose says:

    When you refer to constitution, do you capitalize this word?

    • Jane says:

      The Chicago Manual of Style’s Rule 8.79 states, “Formal or accepted titles of pacts, plans, policies, treaties, acts, programs, and similar documents or agreements are capitalized.” Therefore, write the Constitution of the United States, the United States (or US) Constitution, or the Constitution.

  4. nancy says:

    When someone is referring to continuing education hours and says, “It’s forty hours for the State to keep our State certification,” is it capitalized or not?

    • Jane says:

      Our Rule 9 of Capitalization says, “Capitalize federal or state when used as part of an official agency name or in government documents where these terms represent an official name. If they are being used as general terms, you may use lowercase letters.
      Example:
      The state has evidence to the contrary.”

      Since the word state is not used as part of an official agency name but is used in general terms, do not capitalize. Your second use of the word state is an adjective describing the word certification and likewise should not be capitalized. Also, you may wish to consider rewording the sentence to avoid using a contraction and repeating the word state.
      Perhaps “We must complete forty continuing education hours in order to keep our state certification.”

  5. Nicole Nucinkis says:

    Hi! your texts are very helpful for a paper that I am correcting. I would like to know why Congress is spelled with a capital while parliament is not..thanks!!

    • Jane says:

      If it is used generically to mean “a representative body having supreme legislative powers within a state or multinational organization,” or “a formal conference for the discussion of public affairs” it is not capitalized.

      The word is capitalized when it is referring specifically to a legislative body that is actually called “Parliament” in a country using that form of government; for example, the British Parliament.

  6. MARIO says:

    I’ve read that federal government is generally not capitalized unless used in connection with certain organizations or preceded by US: the US Federal Government, the Federal Government of the US, The Federal Bureau of Investigation. Also, I have read that the words Federal Government are capitalized when referring directly to the official government of the US in its official capacity: the Federal Government.

    • Jane says:

      The Chicago Manual of Style’s Question and Answer section has the following entry:

      Q. When I refer to the government of the United States in text, should it be US Federal Government or US federal government?

      A. The government of the United States is not a single official entity. Nor is it when it is referred to as the federal government or the US government or the US federal government. It’s just a government, which, like those in all countries, has some official bodies that act and operate in the name of government: the Congress, the Senate, the Department of State, etc.

      The federal government itself doesn’t always follow Chicago style, however.

  7. Kaki Almirall says:

    I’m typing a manuscript for a book and would like to know if I should capitalize clerk and register of deeds. I can’t find the answer anywhere. I’ve gotten a lot of help from your blogs but can’t find this answer. It does not follow a name.

    Could someone please help as the book is due in February and I’d like it to be correct.

    Thank you for your time,

    Kaki Almirall

    • Jane says:

      We recommend capitalizing titles when they are used before names, unless the title is followed by a comma. Do not capitalize the title if it is used after a name or instead of a name. Also, titles are not the same as occupations or job descriptions. Do not capitalize occupations before full names. To us “clerk” sounds like an occupation, while “register of deeds” sounds like a title.
      clerk Amy Smith
      Register of Deeds Amy Smith
      Amy Smith, register of deeds

  8. Jason Harris says:

    I am working on a beneficiary informational, should one capitalize ‘state’ in ‘If you designate someone other your Spouse/state-registered Domestic Partner as your beneficiary…’

    Thanks

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