Use 'county' in place names?

+18 votes
I looked through the style guide a bit and couldn't find a rule for this ...

When entering a place name, what is the accepted format:

* Rowley, Essex, Massachusetts, USA

* Rowley, Essex County, Massachusetts, USA

I've always used the first format with the thought that it's a County name and everybody knows that.  An exception would be if there is no town/city name ... then I put in the word County.

I've seen both used here ... some folks jump into a profile I manage and add in the 'County' descriptor ... I go back in and remove it ... sigh.
in The Tree House by Bob Jewett G2G Astronaut (1.2m points)
retagged by Maggie N.

I've always used the first format with the thought that it's a County name and everybody knows that.

Maybe everybody in the USA, and a good many other international contributors can figure it out, but administrative subdivisions in many countries are different, and the same way a US person might not know what a Czech kraj is a Czech might not necessarily know that Essex is the county.

Well, I use "county" in the county name, myself.  But I'm not so wedded to it that I would impose it on another profile manager.  My 2 cents only.  ;-)
Here I go being an Ass (lol) ... if folks don't know or can't surmise that Essex is a county then why would I assume that they know that Rowley is a town or Massachusetts is a state ... so, it seems that I should enter something like:

Rowley town, Essex county, Massachusetts state, United States of America country.

Sorry ... I really know the answer to that!
Perhaps I'm a bit oversensitive to that issue, almost all my profiles are not US and I'm routinely dealing with political entities that just obstinately refuse to follow the US model.

Also, I happen to live in a county that also has a city with the same name in it, so everybody routinely uses "county" when referring to county business.
Your question brings up a very good point.  Personally, I never include the word County or the abbreviation Co. unless there is no town or city mentioned.  But, those of us referring to the United State of America need to standardize the way we refer to place.  Standardizing may ultimately lead to better ways to search for places or betters ways to group profiles.  If we all use our own system, which we probably learned from our genealogy program, we lose that ability.

Can we develop a style guide for place names in the USA (United States of America)? I will say that I really don't want to put United States of America in every place name. The standard abbreviation for South Africa is SA, so there really shouldn't be any confusion there.

I will post another question on G2G about developing such a guide.
In Australia we don't have Counties, we have local Councils, but the name of the Council rarely forms part of a physical address.
The standard abbreviation for South Africa is SA, so there really shouldn't be any confusion there.

Except the standard abbreviation for South Australia is also SA.  No abbreviations is my watchword unless it's USA or UK
I only recently heard of what "everyone knows" (and because everyone knew it, no one thought to tell me about it). I was born in Washington, D.C. & grew up in Alexandria. Neither belongs to a county. When folks referred to Georgetown, Washington, D.C. or Del Ray, Alexandria, they were referring to communities within those cities. So, prior to these discussions, if I saw Rowley, Essex, Massachusetts, I would think that meant the community of Rowley in the city of Essex (and Massachusetts is a commonwealth BTW, not a state). For Virginia, if the location is Stafford, Stafford, Virginia - I now know that's not a glitch duplicating the county name. But it also does not mean a city named Stafford in Stafford county (there isn't one). It probably means Stafford Parish, which served Stafford county prior to 1702. Or that the person who created the profile thought there was a city named Stafford within Stafford county.

Cheers, Liz
I've added a very late answer with a proposal.
I read that we are suppose to spell out abbreviations such as county, township, etc for the benefit of non-English speaking members.  I usually put county in because I have come across situations where I do not know if it is a ciyt or County then state.  Have also seen where it is a village, township, state, again confusing. Have heard of Louisiana having parishes but have not had to do any from there, good reminder.  Now the French-Canadians want us to use the term parish (geographical) town, etc.  I have not done that, although explains why I have found people I thought they were saying were born or died in the church which is how I view the situation, now I have to go back and redo my profiles, but I will indicate whether the name is the parish geographical location or the parish church.  I would greatly prefer spelling the geographical locations and will do so, if you want to delete them go ahead, but I want to make them as clear as possible.

6 Answers

+11 votes
Both formats that you used as an example would be OK as far as the style guide is concerned. That being said I believe that it is always best to do it Rowley, Essex County, Massachusetts, United States of America. That way there is no confusion and it also fits the style guide. I know that the abbreviation is acceptable but other countries may not know all of our conventions as Helmut stated above and other countries could be confused with the USA, like the Union of South Africa.
by Dale Byers G2G Astronaut (1.6m points)
Yeah, my using USA has bugged me for a bit ... but I have loads of profiles using USA and I don't really want to go back and fix those up ... maybe I should.  Anyway, I think I'll start using United States of America from here on ...
I change my own as I do additional work on them but like Nan above I do not impose my style on profiles managed by others. As for adding town, I would word it "Town of Rowley..........." and leave off the word Country. But that is just me.
Please don't use USA for events that occurred before the United States was established as a country.
Well ... of course!
@Bob: I just use "United States". It's a tradeoff so it's shorter, still unambigous, and not an acronym.
+11 votes
I strongly prefer Essex County or even just Essex Co.  While all of the counties in Massachusetts are very familiar just from working in early colonial history, I don't imagine they are as familiar to everyone else without similar experience.  Despite having many ancestors who lived in Ohio, I certainly can't tell you the names or even say that I would recognize all but a handful of the 88 counties of Ohio, or the 254 counties of Texas.  There are many places with both cities and counties of the same name which need to differentiated.  THe United States has 3007 counties plus maore 'county equivalents, it is not reasonable to expect people to know where you are talking about without specifying 'county.'  

My belief is that the primary reason that many if not most people do not add 'County' to a name is that genealogy programs and do not use it as part of their standard search, indexing and formatting.  Since we are manually entering place names it would be best, in my opinion,

That said, I will say  that I do not put the word 'state' after Massachusetts, or even the words United States of America, as it seems too obvious, is non-standard IMO, and makes the place name just too long.
by Joe Cochoit G2G6 Pilot (242k points)

I think that it's a good practice always to include the word "County" when naming a U.S. county. One reason is that Americans almost never refer to the name of a county without including the word "County." The omission of the word "county" in American genealogies is inconsistent with American idiom -- I suspect (without evidence) that it originated with 19th-century American genealogists who were pretending to be English (and claiming descent from aristocrats).

Also, omitting the word "County" can create ambiguity. Some U.S. profiles don't include the city or town, just the county and state, usually because the city or town isn't known. I've seen some such profiles where the name of the county was entered without the word "County." That's not good. Examples of ambiguity that can result:

  • The town of Essex, Massachusetts, is in Essex County, so at least an entry of "Essex, Massachusetts" puts a person in the right part of the state, but we can't tell if the location is the town or the county.
  • New York has a Lewis County and also a town of Lewis  that's in Essex County; if I see "Lewis, New York," I would assume it refers to a town of Lewis, but some contributors might have entered "Lewis, New York" when they meant Lewis County.
  • The town of Decatur in Meigs County, Tennessee is nowhere near Decatur County, Tennessee.
Joe, The name of the country in question is not USA but United States of America, so USA is non standard. The bottom line is I live in the United States of America and not the USA.
So I suppose you type out Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, etc.?
Ellen as I stated in my answer above both ways he used in his example fit the style guide. I then expressed my preference on how to cite locations as well as stated that I do not change the way other managers list theirs. You however started off with warning others not to use USA in events before the revolution. Unless someone hid an answer or comment I fail to see where anyone is talking about pre revolution profiles in this question. Why do you feel that you have to pick on others about our opinions.
Many good points being made here. I appreciate that Bob raised the question.

Maybe we could just put a recommendation on that says something like this:

If you're entering a county name without a town include the word "County," e.g. "Essex County, Massachusetts." Otherwise the word "County" is optional.
As long as the above mentions that it applies to the US only. In England, it is not normal to use Essex County or Middlesex County or  Kent or Northamptonshire County,  (unless you are referring to organisations such as the county council )
I absolutely agree, Helen. In standard usage, the names of English counties don't include the word "County," but the names of United States counties do. Traditional usage in American genealogy has omitted the word "County" -- I assume that was done in part to save space in print publications, but also because 19th-century American compilers of genealogies (who were focused on proving that they had English aristocratic descent) wanted to pretend to be English. We Americans should stop playing that game, but we absolutely shouldn't impose American practises upon the English.
Helen, do you live in England?  I ask because I truly want the opinion of a local.

I frequently see in print the abbreviation “co.” before the English counties which are not –shires.  It is not capitalized, and comes before the county name.  I see this usage in IPMs, in the NEHGR, in CPRs, in CFRs, etc.  For example, I might say I have ancestors from Dover, co. Kent, England which immigrated to Watertown, Middlesex County, Massachusetts.

So, I would agree that Essex County, England is horribly wrong - County is not part of the name. However, it is perfectly OK to say Braintree, co. Essex, England.

Are you saying you think this “co.” abbreviation is wrong?

Note that it would never be used before county ending in –shire.
I'm English, at present living half the time there, half in France.

When I see Dover, County Kent  as a location I immediately think that it was written by an American! That is how it appears to my 'modern' eye. I've been trying to think what appears in older document. Wills which are the records that I am most familiar with tend to use the form Dover in the county of Kent.  Just looked at some translations of Dorset IPMs from the 1600s  which uses the format 'county Kent' but then these were translared from the latin so probably originally used the genitive with no definite article.

It may though have worked in the opposite way to that suggested by Ellen ie people used the format Dover County Kent etc in 16th and 17th C England and took that usage with them to America and didn't change, whereas back in England  the word county in a location was dropped as superfluous.
There is only one county in England that has the same name as the town, and that is County Durham. The rest don't share the town name so should not have county before or after them. If you use the word county after a county name, most people will assume you are talking about the cricket team.
+6 votes
Not all American states have counties.  Louisiana, for instance, has parishes.  

More importantly, you can be born in Towson, Maryland, which is in Baltimore County, so that would be intelligible if only written, "Towson, Baltimore, Maryland.  Or you could be born out in a rural area of the county that is not part of any town or place.  In such cases particularly, I would write that the person is born in Baltimore County, Maryland.  Of course this was more true when people were born at home;  most hospitals are located in identifiable places!  

But to further complicate things, there is Baltimore City, which is adjacent to Baltimore County but not in it, and has the status of a county.  So identifying someone's birth as Baltimore, Baltimore, Maryland, would be both confusing and wrong.  Simply Baltimore, Maryland, would be correct, and one should know one is referring to the city, not the county;  but because not everyone in the world knows such subtle distinctions, I would enter the place as Baltimore City, Maryland.
by Jack Day G2G6 Pilot (417k points)

The FamilySearch suggestions list doesn't distinguish between Baltimore County and the city of Baltimore. It's all just "Baltimore, Maryland." But it could make a big difference for a person searching for old records.

I've worked on profiles for ancestors who lived in the town of Watervliet, New York, a former town that comprised most of Albany County, New York. The town was dissolved in 1896, and a very small part of it is now the city of Watervliet. Profiles typically state the place name as "Watervliet" (because that's the location named in the records), but the distinction is made in the categories Category: Watervliet (town), New York, and Category: Watervliet, New York.

+5 votes
I know opinions vary on this and our new location finder doesn't use county always. I do use county when I know that a county is also the name of a city and all I am adding is the county - so in other words, if I put Spartanburg, South Carolina, United States and do not put county, you cannot tell if I mean Spartanburg the city (and left off the county) or Spartanburg County. I think that if County is needed for clarity, regardless of personal opinion, it is a good idea to include it.

I do not use abbreviations for the same reason Dale stated.
by Paula J G2G6 Pilot (262k points)
I have yet to see any FamilySearch-based "suggestions" that include the word "County" (or "Parish", when relevant) in the name of a U.S. county. But (as I've stated before), the word "County" (or "Parish") is a non-optional part of the names of these entities.

FamilySearch doesn't seem to have this fetish against the word "County" for locations in Ireland. If I enter "Donegal" in a location field, Family Search gives me options that include "Donegal, County Cork, Ireland", "Donegal, County Donegal, Ireland", and "Donegal, County Tipperary, Ireland." United States county names deserve that same kind of respect.
+4 votes
When I first started recording information for places in my records, I would note only what was on the records I was using.

Later I started clarifying the county by adding that after the name. I would add Parish if it was appropriate. Based on the records.

I do this for myself, to help myself keep track of which place name was the actual county. I could have a place  called Cain in Cain County or a place called Cain in Paul County. I need to know that I am talking about if at a later point if I need to find a record where I only had the place name Cain. I wouldn't know for sure if that was the place Cain in one of two possible counties or just Cain County.

A lot of my family is from mountain regions and place names are based on waterways. Those waterways my pass through multiple counties and localities that have changed names overtime. Even states. I would rather add the word County to provide clarity and avoid confusion for future generations that may want to use my research.
by Sharon Ray G2G6 Mach 1 (12.7k points)
I too research the place names from sources so that I am clear on where they are talking about. I do use 'county' when appropriate through out the biography. I am not sure if it is needed in the data fields but use it there as well.
+4 votes

This very late comment was induced by someone coming through and manually changing some profiles I manage from "Kings County, Rhode Island" to "Kings, Rhode Island".  It seems to me the arguments for including "County" in the discussion here are stronger than those against and that there was a decent amount of consensus about this, even a proposal to include a note about US counties here: 

What I didn't see is a comment about how much more developed the naming style conventions are for Categories.  This page seems quite good to me:

That page even says: "Category names for locations follow the same general principles as Location Fields". 

 Rather than include specific rules at the Help:Location_Fields page, I propose we just state at that page that "regional place names should follow the same style guidelines as [[Help:Category_Names#Category_Names_for_Regions|Category Names for Regions]]." 

This would add consistency with minimal effort -- rather than debating and creating place name style guidelines from scratch, we can simply discuss and edit, if needed, the guidelines for category names for regions.

by Barry Smith G2G6 Pilot (258k points)
edited by Barry Smith
Hi Barry,

I had the same issue, with presumably the same person, because it was also on Rhode Island profiles that I manage. I went back and reverted the change to add "County" back in the place names.
IMO, not using "County", in the United States, was decided when Wikitree decided to use the same location standards as, which does not use "County".
I don't believe such a decision was ever made.  If it were, why isn't it written in the Location Field Style Guide?  Wikitree uses the place names from familysearch in the drop down menus, but from discussion I've seen on G2G it looks like that is nothing more than a convenience -- not a policy decision about style.

I might have chosen different wording but the main reason I started with "IMO", is because it is not explicitly written.:)

Here is why I believe it has at least been decided for me.

The style guide says "use their conventions instead of ours." and "using the [location] names that people at the time used".

I have done a lot of research in Essex County, Massachusetts, and much of the State.  The single convention that I observe being used is to only include what is necessary to avoid confusion. This is not the same as some official name, like "Town of Boxford".

There is an implied context already applied when location references are used.  It's not true in all cases, but it seems that birth/death/marriage registers would use just the town name.  For example, the Boxford register would have the bride born in Boxford, and the Groom born in Topsfield.  

Another example was on some tax records was a notation, "Died young in Orleans".  

Most earlier references I have seen, the "convention" only uses the city/town and State as "Rowley, Massachusetts" and later references "Rowley, Mass."  I rarely saw or see source material that includes "USA", "United States" or "United States of America".

The problem with this is that those conventions used by the people at the time used, also knew what those conventions were. 

There would not have been any confusion about the location "Rowley, Essex, Massachusetts, USA", so why would they want to use "Rowley, Essex County, Massachusetts, USA". when adding county would certainly have been redundant.

Two genealogists want something different and the guidelines should be used help resolve the issue, not let it linger. I believe the "Convention" does not include "county" and that the defaults to the Convention used at the time of the event.

This is just my Opinion.

That is a very interesting argument, and I don't believe I have seen it used before in this conversation.  So it seems to me there is a tension between the names people at the time wrote down and what they used.  Certainly, if you asked people in Essex if it were a county, they would have said yes. To avoid confusion locally, they could just write Essex and it would be understood.  But the conversation here seems to get into how to avoid confusion globally, I.e, on wikitree.  I'll need to research more the discussion around these nuances.

The Style Guide only addresses part of the problem, and that's the problem.

When the Style Guide says to use names that people at the time used, that is trying to address the problem of using "New England" in location names, or whether to stop using "British Colonial America".

There are two other problems that have to be addressed. 

The first is globalization. WikiTree is used worldwide. It's ridiculous to NOT put in "United States" just because some local person in history never used it on their documentation. Yes, the country is "implied". But that still means we should write it down.

The second problem is ambiguous place names regarding city and county. There are many locations in the United States where the city and county are the same name. The easiest way to disambiguate this is to write the word "County" after the county name (or parish, etc.) to differentiate. For example, "Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States" could be referring to the city of Tulsa, or to the county of Tulsa, but I don't know which unless it is specified. 

But we have a third problem and that is the basis of this long-going conversation: The Style Guide is only a GUIDE. And there are way too many people here who take it literally, read too much into it, and treat it as law and the only "one true way" to do anything here on WikiTree. 

These are guidelines only. They are imperfect. They change over time (stick around here long enough to see). And in many, many cases they are incomplete, which means that they help in some cases and are mute in many others.

This conversation about location names has been all over the map in G2G. We haven't gotten any clear help from any of the leadership here, regarding making clear guidelines, or on the technical front. It was merely a convenience to use the same location default as some other website. There were many debates we had about doing this. There was discussion about creating our own location defaults, but the response was essentially, "it's too hard". All of this has led to the situation we have today: endless conversations about location names, no clear resolution, and people making changes on profiles for no real good reasons.

@Chris Whitten: Can you please help to resolve this issue, and get the Style Guide for location names sorted out so we can stop this debate?

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