Comma Tip: Place-names

That’s Northampton, Massachusetts, Everyone!

Here’s a rule I see broken all the time: Use commas to set off the individual elements in place-names. In other words, when you cite, say, a city and state, insert a comma before and after the state, as written in the headline above. Why is this rule overlooked so frequently?

I suspect it’s because we wouldn’t speak the names with pauses before and after the state, so there’s no natural cue for the commas. Also, much of the time the commas have no obvious clarifying role. For example, if I write that I live in “Northampton Massachusetts,” most Americans will know I mean a city or town called Northampton in the state of Massachusetts.

However, if we think it through, the need for both commas becomes clear. In the case of the first comma, what if my reader is from abroad and does not know the 50 states? “Northampton Massachusetts” could be a two-word city, for all he knows. Like Great Falls, in Montana. Imagine dropping the comma from New York, New York. The problem becomes clearer still if we put ourselves in the shoes of that reader and use utterly unfamiliar names, thus circumventing easy assumptions:

I was visiting from Merthyr Cynog Powys.

The mysterious consonant-ridden place, as written above, is likely a three-word city or town.

I was visiting from Merthyr, Cynog Powys.

Here, Merthyr is apparently a town, maybe a state, and Cynog Powys is a state or province, or perhaps an obscure country.

I was visiting from Merthyr, Cynog, Powys. 

The educated guess would be that Merthyr is a town, Cynog is a state or similar division, and Powys is a country.

I was visiting from Merthyr Cynog, Powys.

Merthyr Cynog is a town in the state or country of Powys. Which is what we want, in this case: it is in fact a town in the county of Powys, in Wales. You’ve got to love Welsh place-names! (One of the longest place-names in the world is Welsh.) As for omitting the second comma—the more common error—the danger is that the first word of the name could be read as part of an introductory phrase, and the second word as part of the subsequent clause:

Once I got to Merthyr Cynog, Powys life seemed rosy again.

Hmm. What kind of life? It almost looks as if Powys is an adjective modifying life. The false signal is that the introductory phrase ends with Cynog, when it actually ends with Powys.

Telling me she was in Atlanta, Georgia didn’t help me any.

Most of us know that the city of Atlanta is in the state of Georgia, so it’s easy to assume that Georgia indicates the state. But it’s not impossible that Georgia is a woman’s name. Maybe this sentence is saying that Georgia was not particularly helpful when she revealed that she was in Atlanta, or that her being so far away in Atlanta was why she offered no help.

That’s a lot of explaining for two little commas, I admit. But of course rules are easier to remember when thoroughly understood. That’s the assumption behind this classroom, anyway.