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This Capital Community College document best describes my dilemma: “When both a city's name and that city's state or country's name are mentioned together, the state or country's name is treated as a parenthetical element.” That’s fine by me; it’s a habit of mine. But I occasionally find myself questioning that “rule.” For example, is the state or country — bookended by commas — a non-restrictive element?

In some cases, this reasoning would check out:

On average, temperatures in Salt Lake City, UT, reach 90 degrees 56 days a year.

There is of course only one Salt Lake City. But when we say something like this,

The tallest building in Portland, ME, is 16 stories tall.

the state element is no longer non-restrictive. If ME is removed from the sentence — as the commas suggest it may be — then most readers will assume the city to be Portland, OR. Other cities’ names come to mind: Springfield, Salem, Washington, etc.

Is the comma following a state or country’s name arbitrary inasmuch as it is applied to each and every state/country (with a few exceptions, each of which can be found in the above-linked document and is not relevant to this discussion)? In many writings — and I assume them to be written by people who do not obsess over the English language as I do — the comma in question is omitted. And this makes sense, especially in instances when the name of state is essential to identifying the city (see my second example).

Should I therefore consider using a comma, always and without discretion; sometimes, at my discretion; or never?

Note that the same is true of dates. For example,

July 4, 1776, is otherwise known as “Independence Day.”

By the same token,

July 4, 2016, is otherwise known as “Independence Day.”

  • I don't really see the difference in restriction between your examples. If you happen to be from or around New York, KY, or New York, TX (not to mention the New Yorks in Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire, or Tyne and Wear), then you might well expect New York on its own to refer to the local place. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 4 '15 at 15:23
  • @JanusBahsJacquet New York, KY, and New York, TX, have a combined population of about 30 people, but I (kind of) see your point. However, that just makes it seem all the more important to not include the second comma. – Jake Regier Aug 4 '15 at 15:35
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    Good question, I've always wondered about that comma... – Chris Sunami Aug 4 '15 at 16:30
  • The inclusion of the state name implies that it is (or could be) restrictive. Why include it if not? In the case of "New York", the fully qualified name also helps to disambiguate the city from the state - if you wrote something about New York it may not be clear that you were not referring to the state. – Marconius Aug 4 '15 at 18:25
  • @Marconius I have changed New York to Salt Lake City, which (I think) is much less ambiguous. Now it is true that you can say Salt Lake City, and most people will know what you mean; however, Portland, et al., requires clarity. I just don't understand why the second comma is, according to the "rule," always present -- sometimes the state name is extraneous (e.g., UT), and sometimes it is essential (e.g., OR or ME). If, as you say, "the inclusion of the state name implies that it is (or could be) restrictive," then I would think the comma following the state name to be (always) unnecessary. – Jake Regier Aug 4 '15 at 20:34
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Once you've decided to include the state, and place a comma between city and state, the reason for the comma after is fairly simple:

The tallest building in Portland, ME, is 16 stories tall.

In this sentence "ME" is parenthetical, and meaning of the entire sentence is reasonably clear.

The tallest building in Portland, ME is 16 stories tall.

In this sentence it appears that the tallest building in Portland is named "ME", and "ME" is 16 stories tall.

  • I agree with this and am inclined to accept it as an answer, but what about this? "Portland, ME is home to a 16-story building." It is similar to the earlier sentence, but the answer is a little less clear as the first part of the sentence no longer seems to modify the latter. – Jake Regier Aug 5 '15 at 2:30
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    @JakeRegier - Granted, the comma is less necessary there, but being consistent has advantages to both the writer and the reader. – Hot Licks Aug 5 '15 at 2:38
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You could interpret the state or province in Springfield, Calif. and Springfield, N.L. as a non-restrictive phrase, as an elliptical or parenthetical way of specifying the Springfield you want*:

Springfield, [the Springfield in] New South Wales, is a suburb of Gosford.

Springfield, [by which I do not mean the town in Nebraska but the Mennonite camp in] Belize, has many fruit trees.

As you observe, the same principle could be applied to dates, thus July 4, 1776 specifies the 4th of July in 1776 as opposed to all of the other 4ths of July going back to the last 4th of Quintilis.

But not everyone interprets it in this way; the comma is arguably simply a separator. Had postal services adopted a hyphen or some other punctuation mark to serve that purpose, we would not expect a pairing by analogy to an appositive.

Springfield–Gauteng has a dry climate, unlike Springfield-Louisiana.

So, I surmise it comes down to a matter of style, like so many things.

* Washington, D.C. is a separate matter.

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