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In the following context, it is obvious that County is a proper noun and deserves capitalization.

Currently, Albemarle County has four main reservoirs.

However, in these other contexts below, I am not sure whether county and city would be considered proper nouns. Is a reference to a specific geographic area considered a proper noun?

The James River lies south of the county and has a tremendous flow rate.

The Ragged Mountain reservoir is located closest to the city of Charlottesville.

According to the Illinois Identity Standards, I should "not capitalize common nouns and various shortened forms of official names". In the first example, county is referring to a generic county, so I suspect it is a common noun (and can remain uncapitalized). In the second example, I am not sure whether city is proper (and consequently, whether to capitalize). On official documentation, this city is referred to as the "City of Charlottesville", but I have never heard anyone say it quite like that.

I would appreciate any clarification!

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Note that the standards say that you should not capitalize common nouns and shortened forms. For example, you should not capitalize county even if you had previously referred to the county by name (e.g., Wayne County becomes simply county if you refer to it later without the proper name). –  Bradd Szonye Apr 25 '13 at 6:35
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'Charlottesville' is almost certainly quite adequate; this is sometimes not the case with New York, say, where I believe the reference can be to the state, the city, or the county and so 'New York City' might be required. If, however, the official name of Charlottesville is 'City of Charlottesville', a three-word proper name, the first word should, by convention, be capitalised when using the proper name. A complication is that we refer to say the town of Oldham, the city of Leeds, with one-word proper names. Above, I would have expected the 'Ragged Mountain Reservoir' (if that's its name). –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 25 '13 at 6:41
    
Upvoted your question. :) Downvoted your answer :( LOL. –  John M. Landsberg Apr 25 '13 at 7:16
    
+1 @EdwinAshworth –  John M. Landsberg Apr 25 '13 at 7:17
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@Bradd Szonye: Agreed. It would be different if the sentence read The Ragged Mountain Reservoir is maintained by the City of Charlottesville, say. This area is messy; we can have sentences such as The University of Liverpool is one of the universities of Liverpool and Pettigrew was terrified of He Who Must Not Be Named. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 25 '13 at 13:04
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3 Answers 3

Words like city and county often appear in proper nouns alongside their use as common nouns. Most style guides recommend capitalizing these words only when used in full proper names. For example:

Wayne County is a county in the U.S. state of Michigan. As of the 2010 census, its population was 1,820,584 making it the 18th most-populous county in the United States. The county seat is Detroit, the largest city in Michigan.

Note how the entry only capitalizes Wayne County.

According to the 2000 census, the county has a total area of 672.20 square miles....

This last case is what the Illinois Identity Standards mean by “shortened forms of official names.” Even though it specifically refers to Wayne County and might be considered an abbreviation of the proper noun, you do not capitalize county when using it alone like this. Likewise, you would not capitalize the city or the county seat even when referring specifically to the city of Detroit.

You can read many such phrases in more than one way. City of London is a famous example: The City of London is a district of the city of London. Capitalization always follows from the phrase's meaning, not its form. It would be incorrect to capitalize city of London when referring to the greater metropolitan area. Likewise, the Research Triangle is anchored by “the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill” even though City of Raleigh appears as a proper noun in official documents.

Often, a common noun is more appropriate even when it exactly matches the form of a proper name. Follow the meaning, not the form. For example:

The Commonwealth of Virginia has many natural reservoirs. The Ragged Mountain reservoir is located closest to the City of Charlottesville.

Here, City fits the meaning; even better, it matches the formal register of Commonwealth.

The Ragged Mountain reservoir is located closest to the city of Charlottesville (but the unincorporated community of Ednam is closer).

In contrast, this example emphasizes city as a geographical role and not as part of Charlotte's identity. Therefore, it requires the uncapitalized common noun.

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Airport? A bit too much discussion of things the questioner (you) is not asking about. And I don't think it's exactly random to "justify" capitalizing or not capitalizing "city" in City of Charlottesville; it's a matter of what the official name is. So, Bradd, you're confusing the picture with your own answer to your own question!! –  John M. Landsberg Apr 25 '13 at 7:12
    
@JohnM.Landsberg The “official name” is not prescriptive, and in some cases it would make the sentence factually incorrect. I added better examples to demonstrate this. –  Bradd Szonye Apr 25 '13 at 22:03
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In the matter of capitalizing City when referring to New York City, here’s my reasoning: you should capitalize City when you are using the word as an abbreviated form of — or simple synonym for — New York City or the City of New York.

For example,

We love to bike in the City, especially along Hudson River park to the GWB.

Do not capitalize city when referring New York City in generic terms; for example,

We visited New York City. The city was like any other except more so.

I’d say the same goes when referring to the City of London, as opposed to London as a whole; the City (that is, London’s financial district) is, like Wall Street, a proper name in its own right.

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Capital letters are used at the start of nouns to indicate that they are proper nouns. Consequently the word "city" or "county" are capitalized when they are part of a proper noun, such as

New York City

Wayne County

You do not capitalize the word "city" or "county" when it is not being used as part of a proper noun:

I visited a city in New York

The confusion arises because some proper nouns exist with both with and without "City" in the noun:

I live in New York

I live in New York City.

The rule, however, is clear. Capitalization is required for proper nouns - it is never* applied to other nouns.


*(except when another rule takes precedence, for example the noun is at the beginning of a sentence, nouns which are acronyms, or for the pronoun 'I').

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Well, there are "the city of London" and "the City of London" which do represent different things. –  Andrew Leach Apr 25 '13 at 12:11
    
@AndrewLeach: Yes. "City of London" (or even "The City") is actually a district of London whose name is "The City of London". This is in contrast to the city whose name is "London", which might be referred to as "the city of London". You capitalize the former because "The City of London" is a proper noun. You don't capitalize the latter because only London is a proper noun in the latter. –  Matt Apr 25 '13 at 12:12
    
Well no, the formal name of NYC is the City of New York, which requires capitalization, and that is almost certainly how your example would be interpreted. But one could say On my trip to New York, we spent two days in the city and two days in the suburbs with my aunt. –  choster Apr 25 '13 at 12:51
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@NealP: A noun is a proper noun if it is used as if it were a name. As a general rule, if the noun or phrase can be put at the end of the sentence fragment "[his/her/it's] name is ..." then it is a proper noun. Hence Microsoft, Mr. Jones, Stacey, New York City, The London Marathon and so on are all proper nouns, but banana, city, county are not (normally) proper nouns. –  Matt Apr 25 '13 at 22:08
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@BraddSzonye: If you are extra pedantic and say "The New York City city limits" - it makes it a bit more clear that in your example, the subject is "city limits" of the proper noun "New York" - not a grammatical outlier where a proper noun is not properly capitalized. Similarly a "new York shop" is a new shop in York, whereas a "New York shop" is a shop in New York. The grammar is important because it makes the distinction clear. –  Matt Apr 25 '13 at 22:13
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