My Discussion With the Chicago Style Q&A Regarding Capitalization of Words Denoting Political Divisions

The Chicago Manual of Style is an essential resource. It’s useful even for contract drafters (see this 2012 post). But I’ve long had a quibble about its guidance on one small issue regarding capitalization of words denoting political divisions. So today I exchanged emails with the online Chicago Style Q&A—itself a great resource.

If I understood it correctly, the interpretation offered by the CMOS representative behind the emails suggests that CMOS would endorse the following distinction:

We submitted the form to the secretary of state of the state of Delaware. [Small s in state.]

We submitted the form to the secretary of state of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. [Capital C in Commonwealth.]

That seems unhelpful.

My analysis is contained in the email exchange, which I’ve reproduced below. I welcome your thoughts as to whether my analysis makes sense and, if it does, whether, and how, CMOS might tweak its guidelines.

But it’s important to note that CMOS representatives answer the odd emailed question free of charge, in their so-called spare time. The answers aren’t proofread or copyedited or passed through a committee. The Q&A postings aren’t viewed as the voice of authority: they’re a less formal sort of alter ego of CMOS, a discussion. If another CMOS representative had happened to come upon my inquiry, I might have received a different answer. And regardless of the response, my inquiry accomplished its goal—to spur me to consider this issue more broadly.

With that said, here’s the exchange of emails:

KAA Email 1

In my book “A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting” (ABA 3d ed. 2013), I recommend that contract drafters follow CMOS guidelines regarding capitalization. But I wonder what Massachusetts lawyers would make of the notion that in accordance with CMOS16, 8.50, one should say “the Commonwealth [capital “C”] of Puerto Rico” but “the commonwealth [small “c”] of Massachusetts.”

I guess one sets guidelines according to what makes sense generally and one lives with those instances where applying the guidelines leads to results that can seem counterintuitive.

If you can provide me with any further justification to offer Massachusetts lawyers, I’d be happy to hear it.

CMOS Email 1

Chicago style does cap the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in the same way we cap Washington State. Note, however, that when referring to the geographical place (as opposed to the government entity) both words are lowercased: I am moving to the state of Washington; many species of birds are found in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

KAA Email 2

OK, so am I correct in thinking the following:

First, you’d say “many species of birds [bird?] are found in the commonwealth of Massachusetts” but would say “many species of birds are found in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”

And second, you’d say (according to CMOS16, 8.21) “We submitted the form to the secretary of state of the state of Delaware” but would say “We submitted the form to the secretary of state of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts”

If so, some might find less than persuasive the distinctions reflected in both.

CMOS Email 2

We feel that it makes sense to capitalize the formal names of political governing entities (as proper names), but to lowercase the same words when they are not part of a proper name. Thus, there would be contexts where “the commonwealth of Puerto Rico” (lowercased) would conform to Chicago style.

If you feel that these distinctions are too subtle for you or your readers, you might prefer to cap throughout regardless of context. That is the style that many houses use, and readers will not be inconvenienced or confused by it.

KAA Email 3

Yikes. You might have to revise CMOS16, 8.21 and 8.50, because the two awkward distinctions I offer [in my previous email] are required by 8.21 and 8.50. The value of CMOS is that it provides clear guidelines. If you start fudging those guidelines, that undercuts its value.


About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.