Extra Commas in Place-Names

Many MacGenealogists noticed my use of “extra” commas in place-names while viewing the Speed Names screencast. A number of viewers were so curious that they asked why I include them. I chose to write the answer as an article so that those who were not bold (or curious) enough to ask could also be informed.

As we know, the commas in a complete place-name separate the individual elements of the name: city, county or province, state or region, and country. As eagle-eyed viewers noted, I include them even when a part of a place-name is unknown or not specified by a source. So if all except the city is known there is an empty, leading comma like this:

, Washtenaw, Michigan, USA

If the all names except the county is known the entry will be:

Ann Arbor, , Michigan, USA

Where only the country is known you’d see:

, , , USA

And so forth.

I find that this practice eliminates some errors, for example mistaking a county name for a city name. Ambiguity in genealogical documentation can cause wasted time and possibly money. And wasted time delays achievement of our research goals—something none of us wants! The extra commas are simply one my methods for preventing errors I would otherwise undoubtedly make.


  1. mtalibard says

    The article on commas in place names is interesting, and would certainly clariry matters – if every address (when know in in full) consisted of those four elements; but in different countries and in different time priods, I find that is far from being the case.

  2. says

    This is why I don't use the commas to force a place entity into a position, as the leading or double comma doesn't look that great – particularly to anyone who doesn't know its strict reason for being there in places like

    Richmond, Virginia, USA (where Richmond, and a number of other cities in Virginia are not “in” a county, and haven't been for a very long time) or

    I “clarify” matters by always using Co. after the name of the County in US and Canadian states/provinces (substituted as appropriate with Parish (Louisiana) and Region or District (parts of Ontario, Canada come to mind here.)

    And in general one usually knows the place entities from right to left – one would almost always know the country, and then the state/province, so that a place like

    Michigan, USA

    is obvious, and doesn't need to be clutterd with 2 leading commas. If there is some doubt, like I've been given information that a place is “Union, Ohio” but it's not Union County, then I will (try to) list that as Union, ? Co., Ohio, USA with a memo of the possible values for the ?

    But as Michael points out 4 place entities is 1 too many in other parts of the world, and for some other places is 1 too few.

    The most important two things in my mind are consistency, and ALWAYS end with a country.


  3. Bob Blevens says

    I agree with Roger. I've been guilty of omitting the country for USA places for which the state is known, but have begun spelling out the names of the states so that there's no problem re identification. (Many censuses, for example, show IA as an abbreviation for Indiana, but today it's the official abbreviation for Iowa.) The elimination of such modifiers as “twp.,” “co.,” etc., seems to be fairly new, Using Roger's example, even a place such as Michigan seems obvious, but don't make the mistake of assuming it is. It could be a town, township, or county or other political division in a different state. Normally, if Michigan was the last word of a place name with several words, a person would be fairly safe to assume (ugh!) it was the state. And by the same token, the first word without a modifier in such a group would likely be a town. But keep the modifiers!


  4. says

    Personally I am a fan of place holders to maintain a strucutre. However what I am struggling with is how to record a church in the place. I don’t want an extra level for the church.

    How do you maintain the church information in your example above Ben?


  5. Lisa Benney says

    Keith – I use the same place holder logic as Ben as use the following format when entering a church, cemetery or other place – Warren (St Jean Church), Bristol, Rhode Island, USA

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