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Cabinet capitals

W
ashington shorthand often reduces the Department of Commerce to Commerce, and so on. So that would make the head of that department the secretary of Commerce, right?

Well, no. Although that capitalized short form is perfectly acceptable (He works at Commerce) and the secretaries' titles should be capitalized when used before names (Commerce Secretary Bill Daley), the terms agriculture, commerce, defense, education, energy, health and human services, housing and urban development, interior, labor, state, transportation, and veterans affairs should otherwise be lowercased in titles (the secretaries of agriculture and commerce).

You could chalk this up as a matter of style as opposed to correctness, but I submit that the errant capitalizers are confused. The editors of USA Today appear to be in this camp; here's one example:

Former Indiana Republican senator Dan Coats had been considered the front-runner for Defense secretary, but insiders say a private chat he had with Bush raised doubts in the president-elect's mind.
Yes, in some sense the secretary of defense is the secretary of the Department of Defense, but that's not the primary meaning of the title. Just as the Defense Department's mission is little-d defense, the defense secretary's mission is little-d defense. Department of Defense and secretary of defense were born simultaneously; that latter wasn't an afterthought based on the former.

Treasury is an exception to this rule because the U.S. Treasury is a capitalized entity in itself. To lowercase that would be like writing the mayor of cleveland.

By the way, as I demonstrate above, the of and non-of formulations of the departments and titles are basically interchangeable (Department of Commerce, Commerce Department, secretary of commerce, commerce secretary), though your ear will instruct you to avoid such ugly possibilities as state secretary.


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