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Washington State of Confusion

[NOTE: This information was updated in October 2014.]

I live in the state of Washington. I live in Washington State. And when it comes to capitalization, it’s the state of confusion. Why? Because various style manuals recommend capitalizing differently.

graphic stating "Washington State or state of Washington"

When state comes after the state’s name, it is capitalized, according to The Gregg Reference Manual and The Chicago Manual of Style:

Washington State
New York State

That’s the style I follow. However, you may wish to follow the style of the Associated Press Stylebook (AP), which does not capitalize state after the name:

Washington state
New York state

AP points out that “Washington State” is the name of a university.

We who live in Washington State and New York State come up against this question often. We are the only states in the U.S. that need to distinguish ourselves from other geographical entities: Washington, D.C., and New York City. Colorado State, Michigan State, and other such names do not refer to a state, but rather a college or university. (Yes, the word State is still capitalized.)

When state comes before the state’s name, all three style manuals agree that it is lower case, that is, not capitalized:

state of Washington
state of New York
the great state of Texas
the sunny state of California

For those beyond the complexity of Washington State (state?) and New York State (state?), there are these rules too:

  • State is generally not capitalized when it is used in place of the state name, as in “This is a new state program” or “He is a state employee.”
  • States is capitalized when it refers to the United States.

Of course, all key words are capitalized in a heading, for example, State of Florida Employment Application.

The Chicago Manual of Style offers more details on the topic. It states, “Where a specific governmental body rather than the place is meant, the words state, city, and the like are usually capitalized when used as part of the full name of the body.” Chicago gives these examples:

She works for the Village of Forest Park.
That is a City of Chicago ordinance.
But: Residents of the village of Forest Park enjoy easy access to the city of Chicago.

Applying the Chicago rule, do I live in the City of Seattle? No, it’s simply the city of Seattle. Capitalize city only when it is part of the city’s name (New York City, Kansas City, Sun City), its creative name (Windy City for Chicago), or the name of the governmental body.

“AP” provides these examples of governmental bodies:

Boston City Council
New York State Police
state Transportation Department (where “state” is not part of the name)

I hope you are now in a state of clarity.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “Washington State of Confusion”

  • Thank you for clearing up this common problem. Have you any tips about how to explain the spelling of the name for Washington State’s chief government building? (I’ve heard it’s the “capitol building” with an “o” because it describes the shape of the dome – and the chief city of the state is called the “capital.” Yes?

  • We don’t normally look at documents from the 19th century to determine the capitalization we want to use today. I would not make choices based on the state constitution.


  • Okay, so then this article is actually incorrect. The Washington State Constitution states in the very first sentence “We, the people of the State of Washington…”. the State of Washington is Washington State’s offical name, therefore it is capitalized.

  • According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “Where the government rather than the place is meant, the words state, city, and the like are usually capitalized.” (15th edition, item 8.56) If you worked for the state government in Washington State, and if you chose to follow the advice of the Chicago Manual of Style, you would be an employee of the State of Washington.

  • Hi, Jackie. Thanks for stopping by. I no longer have the 15th edition of CHICAGO, but the 16th edition makes the same point in 8.51.

    As you noted, if you are talking about the government, “State of Washington” is correct. If you are talking about the location, “state of Washington” is appropriate.

    Thanks for offering that clarification.


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