Capitalization, Titles

Q. We are preparing a publication on imperialism and are doing our best to follow CMOS 16’s instruction that “words denoting political divisions . . .  are capitalized when they follow a name and are used as an accepted part of the name” (8.50). And so we have “the Ottoman Empire,” “the Roman Empire,” “the American empire,” “the Japanese empire,” etc. But we are concerned that such a treatment, in the scope of the whole publication, may appear inconsistent or preferential. (Is it, after all, the British “Empire” or “empire”?) Do you think it would be acceptable in this context to use the lowercase “empire” in all instances? Of course, even as I put that question to you, writing “the Ottoman empire” doesn’t seem quite right. We would be grateful for any advice you might have on this point.

A. Although we often bend a rule for the sake of “regional consistency,” I think you risk confusion by tampering with a fairly strong tradition of capping officially recognized empires. The British and the Romans ruled their empires, installing governors and courts, recruiting armies, and granting citizenship. The people in their empires were subjects of the queen or king or emperor. However aggressive Americans have been in the affairs of other countries, they have never established an identifiable empire of that nature. I doubt that many readers would think it inconsistent to cap the British Empire and lowercase the American empire, when the intended meanings of the words are different.

If you choose not to make a distinction, you may appear to be making a political statement—perhaps less preferable to appearing to be inconsistent.