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Why doesn't the convention of capitalizing proper nouns apply to Secretary of State, Attorney General, FBI Director, etc?

In American news these days, the names State Department and Secretary of State are frequently written. However, in professional print and web news sources, those proper nouns are almost always (there are exceptions) written in all lower case as such: state department and secretary of state.

What is going on? Even though I see the New York Times writing:

The secretary of state is a cabinet level position.

I can't do it. I am sure it is wrong. I write:

The Secretary of State is a Cabinet level position.

cabinet, instead of Cabinet, is a piece of furniture.
secretary, instead of Secretary, is someone who might work at a law firm.

Please, someone set me straight. Maybe I've just been reading news sources with low-quality proof checkers? I mean, I just read "www.rt.com" and they have it as Secretary of State.

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    'The secretary of state is a cabinet level position' but, as a title, 'The Secretary of State is coming tomorrow'. Compare 'Queen Victoria was a good queen (but a ...)'. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 4 '16 at 18:14
  • Agreed. Maybe this will help you feel better about It: Of all the royal pooh-bahs we've ever had, this royal pooh-bah is the best. Long live Royal Pooh-Bah Oscar! – aparente001 Sep 4 '16 at 21:15
  • Russia Today is a less reliable source on English style than the NYT, which is an English newspaper. – user3932000 Jan 7 '18 at 21:36
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Capitalization issues are style related. However, your basic assumption, Secretary of state is a proper noun, is faulty.

Here are some examples using instructions from The Chicago Manual of Style:

The president drank coffee today. President Obama drank coffee today.

The secretary of state went to China.

Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton went to China.

Hilary Clinton, the former secretary of state, went to China.

I traveled south.

I traveled to the South.

The Bishop of Rome falls into his own category and can depend on who one is talking to. Capitalization depends on the article:

A pope retains the office for life.

The Pope can retire before his death.

As far as cabinet, I suppose you could make an argument based on comprehension, but consider something like After closing arguments, the case went to the jury; in the end, it was a hung jury. However, I'd personally capitalize:

The Eisenhower Cabinet was instrumental in post-war politics, but Eisenhower's cabinet pushed for arms build-up in Southeast Asia.

  • D'you not think those examples… The secretary of state… (Former) Secretary of State Hilary Clinton… Hilary Clinton, the former secretary of state… actually say more about the limitations of your style guide than anything else? – Robbie Goodwin Nov 8 '18 at 21:30
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Secretary of state is not a proper noun, is a common noun. If there's one secretary of state for every country, then the noun is common cause it refers to a lot of "things" of that "type". Like "a century of earthquakes" in comparisson with "Earthquake of the Century". The proper noun refers to one specific individual or an specimen from a "type".

You can argue that when it talks about the secretary of state and you can read the previous text, then you get the context to understand that is referring to THE secretary of state. But if you change that context there's nothing in the secretary of state phrase that make it PROPER, cause you can't identify which secretary is. However, if it says "Secretary of State John Whatever" it's stating in the same phrase that the noun that shows the job is uniquely tied to that person, so unique from its type.

Because of this, it falls into the rules of style if you keep the text reference (secretary of state) as a "link" to a previous proper noun that contextualizes or you change it into a proper noun in every piece of text that comes after the original reference. Indeed I should said that to be clear you should write "Secretary of State John Whatever" every time you want to make it a proper noun, cause "secretary of state" is as a common noun as it is "my father". Even when my father is unique.

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Faster asks what’s going on when, in professional print and web news sources, proper nouns such as State Department and Secretary of State are often written all in lower case.

Now and then, that might be down to low-quality proof readers, but when it’s consistent, it’s down to the writers and worse, sub-editors – in publishing, style is one of the main responsibilities of sub-editors. Many modern writers and sub-editors think it’s much more important to appear stylish than to follow any rules of style except their own.

A specific publication might have special rules, and even their own “rules” often depend more on what colour socks they’re wearing today. Be very careful about any “rules” in print, whether on paper or on the WWW.

For a very obvious – if distantly related – example, consider acronyms, including your own FBI. Once upon a time bodies, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation were always abbreviated NATO and items such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBM. In just the last few years, acronyms that can readily be pronounced as real words – such as NATO – seem as, if not more, likely to be printed Nato. Whether that’s really sensible is a matter of opinion, but that acronyms which don’t work as real words – such as ICBM or FBI – should, for that reason, be treated differently and allowed to keep their full capitalisation seems more perverse.

More relevantly, today’s media frequently uses forms like Lord Fred Blogs – or vaguely more respectfully, Lord Frederick Blogs – when the man is actually Fred, Lord Blogs. Huge numbers of ears don’t notice the difference, but it’s very like referring to a knight as Sir Blogs instead of Sir Fred or a lady as Dame Family rather than Dame Firstname; always wrong, but who cares, today?

For a real underlying guide, trust either Debrett’s Correct Form or an office edition of Webster’s Dictionary – the church-Bible size.

  • @RobbieGoodwin I can help with the issue of odd characters. The safe way to italicize in an answer is to use the * markdown character. For example, *Debrett's Correct Form*. Other methods will look funny on some devices. – MetaEd Sep 21 '16 at 19:19
  • I have incorporated your clarification comment, copyedited, and replaced the italic Unicode characters with standard markdown. I hope my edits are consistent with your intended message. – MetaEd Sep 22 '16 at 15:43
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    Anyone can downvote your answer for any reason. A downvote generally indicates that the voter thinks the post needs improvement. A person who explains their downvote (such as Janus did) is doing you a courtesy, even if you ultimately decide you disagree with their reason. – MetaEd Sep 22 '16 at 15:52
  • Thanks MetaEd; very helpful. An apology, everyone: I made the schoolboy error of assuming Faster asked about instances where Secretary of State should have been capitalised because it was used in full, with the person's name, as for example "at this morning's press conference Secretary of State Bigman Power said…" I thought 'in American news these days…' meant he was contrasting that tradition with a modern habit of de-capitalising things, which is of course different. What I said might be helpful in another context; here it shows that to assume is to make an ass of you and me – Robbie Goodwin Sep 22 '16 at 16:07
  • My local paper wants it both ways: Eve Janes is a parliamentary private secretary (PPS) at the Ministry of Defence… Fine PPS to Adam John MP, minister of state for the armed forces, Janes said: “I look forward to working at the Ministry of Defence with Adam and Secretary of State, the Rt Honourable Sir Thomas Dix. Minister of State or secretary of state; Rt Hon or Right Honourable “I serve as a Parliamentary Private Secretary.” Lower-case parliamentary private secretary abbreviated in capitals is no excuse to keep caps when PPS reverts back to parliamentary private secretary… – Robbie Goodwin Sep 24 '16 at 16:45

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