State Names and Abbreviations

By Mark Nichol

How should you treat references to states? The form depends on which style guide you adhere to and why the state is being referenced. Details about how to refer to states follow.

The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook agree on one thing: When referring to a state on its own, spell the state name out (“California became a state in 1850”). However, when referring to a city and the state in which it is located, although Chicago recommends retaining the spelled-out version of the state name (“San Diego, California”), AP style calls for abbreviating the state name (“San Diego, Calif.”) if it consists of more than six letters. (Chicago also has abbreviations if you insist, but they don’t always match AP’s style.)

The AP style abbreviations arbitrarily range in length from two to six letters, and all two-word names are abbreviated with the initials, such as N.Y. for “New York” — with the exception of West Virginia’s abbreviation, which for some reason is rendered W.Va. (Note that AP style omits state names for a specified list of cities considered familiar enough that the state in which they are located need not be mentioned.) In headlines, the periods are omitted.

However, when giving an address, or in tables or other uses in which space is limited, use the US Postal Service’s symbol system, which consists of a two-letter abbreviation in which both letters are always capitalized and no periods are used (for example, NY for “New York”).

Other style handbooks have their own guidelines, so, if you are writing or editing for a particularly company as a staff member or a freelancer, determine which resource is considered the authority on state abbreviation.

Note, too, that abbreviation of country names is rare and not recommended. US and UK are frequently used as nouns in informal contexts, but the names should be spelled out except as adjectives — “the US response,” for example, or “the UK’s role” — and Chicago recommends omitting periods in these cases, as is advised for all capitalized abbreviations.

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14 Responses to “State Names and Abbreviations”

  • Deborah HH

    Ack! I hate the Post Office’s two-letter state abbreviations. I made a failing grade on a United States map when I was a sixth-grader (1964) because I used an informational document from the Post Office to label the states. I’m still sore about it!

  • thebluebird11

    Calif? OK, I live in….Florid? Fla? Seems to me that if you’ve already wasted 4 letters (beyond the 2-letter USPS state abbreviation), you might as well go the whole 9 yards. I have no interest in battling the style guides, and am just sticking in my (probably incorrect) 2 cents. Luckily in my job nobody really cares that much how you deal with this issue, so I can be as incorrect as I want. My personal goal is to keep things streamlined, as concise and as clean as possible, without making things confusing or unreadable; also, no periods if they can be avoided. In the medical field, most of this stuff (i.e. state names) is just sort of ancillary information, like mentioning somewhere that the patient is from out of state, or visiting from some other country. It’s usually not germane to the actual medical condition and nobody really focuses on this piece of trivia, unless the patient is harboring a rare and/or infectious condition from that other state/country. One of these days I should invest in a style guide just for the fun of it. I’m sure I will be crushed to find how often I’m out of line.

  • Mark Nichol

    thebluebird11:

    A style guide is just that — a guide for establishing a system. As long as you have a good reason to do something other than what a style guide recommends, do it; just be consistent.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To thebluebird11:
    This fact has already been covered in previous issues of Daily Writing Tips: the single-digit numbers zero through nine are to be spelled out in English, and it is also good to spell out “ten”. Therefore: “my two cents worth”, “four letters”, “the whole nine yards”.

    Furthermore, “six of one and a half-dozen of the other”, “several is three or four”, “three yards and a cloud of dust”, “the five fingers of one hand”, “four fingers plus the thumb”, “seven days a week”, “Eight Men Out”, “The Magnificent Seven”, “the nine justices of the Supreme Court”, “a three-judge Federal panel”, “one out of many”, “The Three Amigos”, “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, “the six wives of Henry VIII”.

    Also note: “If you will be hanged for a penny, you might as well be hanged for stealing a pound,” and NOT “If you will be hanged for 1 pence, you might as well be hanged for stealing 1 pound.” Your attitude towards writing numbers seems to be the latter. Don’t be that way: avoid being hanged!

    When it comes to writing larger numbers, observe these:
    Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years.
    “2001: A Space Odyssey”
    “2010: Odyssey Two”
    It rained on Noah’s Ark for 40 days and 40 nights.

    “When Noah sailed the ocean blue,
    He had his troubles, same as me and you.
    For 40 days he drove his Ark,
    Before he found a place to park.”

    1. “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two,
    Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” OR
    2. “In 14 hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” OR
    3. “In 14 hundred and 92, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
    I think that number one is preferable, though.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I have never seen the name of a city – one with one word – abbreviated except in very rare cases. Mr. Nichol stated this.

    “Chicago” also has abbreviations if you insist, but they don’t always match AP’s style.

    The exceptional cases are generally cities whose names are two or three words long, e.g.
    N.Y.C., L.A., S.F., S.L.C., S.L.O., “Rio”, D.F.W., K.C., N.O., St.L., O.K.C., Q.C., B.A. It does seem to be apparent that the names of cites with more than one word are mostly found in North America, with a few more in Latin America (e.g. Rio de Janiero, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Santa Domingo, San Juan, Panama City, La Paz).

    In case you haven’t seen these before, S.L.C. = Salt Lake City, S.L.O. = San Luis Obispo, D.F.W. = Dallas – Ft. Worth, O.K.C. = Oklahoma City, Q.C. = Quebec City, B.A. = Buenos Aires.
    San Luis Obispo is along the coast of California, halfway between S.F. and L.A., and its name translated from Spanish means “Saint Luis the Bishop”.

    For some rare ones with one word, there are B’ham for Birmingham, Jo’burg for Johannesburg, and Philly for Philadelphia. Do you know of any more? However, these fall into the category of slang, too.

    I have never seen long names like these abbreviated: Copenhagen, Concepcion, Edinburgh, Farnsborough, Guatemala City, Heidelburg, Honolulu, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Montevideo, Nottingham, Portsmouth, Sacramento, Ascuncion, Santiago, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Saskatoon, Syracuse, Tegulcipalpa (spelled?), Vancouver, Vladivostok, Winnipeg, Yokohama.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Other long names for cities, one word long:
    Alexandria, Amsterdam, Anchorage, Barcelona, Bastogne, Bucharest, Casablanca, Charlottetown, Duesseldorf, Eindhoven, Guadalajara, Hiroshima, Kraznyorsk, Leopoldville, Luxembourg (City), Manchester, Monrovia, Marseilles, Melbourne, Nijmegan, Providence, Reykjavik, Rotterdam, Strassbourg, Trondheim, Wellington.

    Of course, the official name of Los Angeles is 20 to 25 words long. You can look it up. From this point-of-view, “Los Angeles” IS an abbreviation.

    Note that in Europe, there are different cities named Strassbourg, Strassburg, and Strasburg in France, Germany, and Austria, and sometimes the same city has different spellings for its names: Strassbourg in French and StraBurg in German, where I have used “B” for the special German letter for an “ss”. It looks like a capital Greek “beta”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “with the exception of West Virginia’s abbreviation, which for some reason is rendered (as) W.Va.”

    There is something to be said for TRADITION in such things.
    It has always been abbreviated “W.Va”, and why change now?
    West Virginia used to be part of Virginia, and it was that way for hundreds of years – starting in the 1600s.

    I think that you need to watch the film FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and listen to the song “Tradition” ! Tradition keeps us from having to INVENT things all over again all the time.

    “Calif.” – tradition! “Colo.” – tradition! “Alas.” – tradition! “Ariz.” – tradition! “Mary.” – tradition! “Mass.” – tradition! “Tenn.” – tradition! “Wash.” – tradition! “Wisc.” tradition! “Tex.” – tradition! “Ky.” – tradition! “Mo.” – tradition!

    {Ala., Fla., Ga., Ida., Ia., La., Okla., Pa., Va., Wa., W.Va.} – tradition!

    “H.I.” = “Hawaiian Islands” – tradition, though “Ha.” was also used.
    “P.R.” = “Puerto Rico” – tradition! Ohio – not abreviated – tradition!

    More than one abbreviation for the same place – tradition!
    Cal. or Calif., Col. or Colo., Conn. or Ct., Mary. or Md., Pa. or Penn., Ver. or Vt., Iowa or Ia., Maine or Me., Utah or Ut., Ver. or Vt.

    Contrary to lots of opinions, human beings are NOT computers. Human beings are supposed to be able to recognize things by taking the context into consideration.
    This is something that is damned hard to get computers to do.

    D.A.W.

  • thebluebird11

    @DAW: There is not enough time in the bottle to address your posts, but 2 (two) things: I am aware of the recommendation to spell out numbers under 10 (ten) but I use my judgment depending on the context, to decide which way is better. If the phrase is something like “one way or the other,” I will spell out one. If the phrase is something like “abdominal pain for 1 week,” I will not spell it out.
    Also, there are way more city abbreviations than you can possibly know, because locals have ways of dealing with these things, and you are not local everywhere. For example, there is a city here in SoFla (yes, that is South Florida) named Opa-locka; this is actually an abbreviation of the Seminole name, “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.” You can look it up. Also, we call Jacksonville Jax, sometimes refer to Coral Gables as “The Gables,” and sometimes shorten “Ft. Lauderdale” to “Ft. Laud,” “Lauderdale,” or even just “down town.” That is just in speech. In writing, we shorten things further, such as L’dale, K’zoo (Kalamazoo), Chi (Chicago), H’ville (which could be Huntsville or Hendersonville, depending), etc.
    Also, I definitely agree with abbreviating city names to match airport codes, so in writing I will refer to FLL, ATL, OKC, etc., IF they make sense. However, most people would not get it if I said I were going to visit a friend in HNL.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To: thebluebird11 Oh, there might be a time and a place for such things in oral, slang English, but that was not my subject at all. My subject was taken from the subject of the article, which was about the kind of English that is written in newspapers, magazines, and books. I thought that this fact followed directly, but clearly that was not true for all readers. Let me repeat myself: I was not writing about slang English, spoken or written. I mentioned myself that abbreviations like B’ham, Jo’burg, and Philly are slang. Likewise are such names as “Chi-town”, which isn’t an abbreviartion at all.

    Espressions like “abdominal pain for 1 week,” are simply the jargon of your profession. In nonjargon writing, that one MUST be “abdominal pain for one week.” The numeral “1” is readily confused with the lower case or upper case “L”, or the capital letter “I”, or a “7” or a “9”. This is the reason for writing out the numbers zero through nine. Your expression could easily be read as “abdominal pain for 7 week,” which would indicate a serious problem for the patient – maybe cancer.

    Using the abbreviation codes for airports, elsewhere, is particularly unwise, since these include JFK, IAD (International Airport Dulles), ORD (O’Hare International Airport), and where are these to people who do not know much about airports? They never fly, or they never pay attention to baggage checks, etc. I have known people who had no idea what airports they were in: e.g. a woman who was flying from North Carolina to Baltimore-Washington, but she nearly got off the airplane in Richmond, Virginia, because she didn’t pay any attention to and intermediate stops the plane might make.
    BHM is also bad: it means Birmingham, but is that in England or in Alabama?

    Sportswriters are fond of abbreviations for cities, but that does not make them Standard English that you should use elsewhere. Note that T.B. means Tampa Bay or tuberculosis, S.A. means San Antonio or South America, Houston is either Htn. or Hou., Phoenix is either Pho., Phx., or Pnx. There really isn’t an excuse for not writing the names out completely and clearly – except in the tables in the sports pages. Writing the names out eliminates a lot of opportunities for confusion.

    That’s a diffence between you and me. I believe that writing should be done to AVOID confusion, and you think that it is O.K. to allow it. D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Maybe “ORD” was originally an abbreviation for “O’Hare Field” which is a name that many people in and around Chicago still call that airport. You can hear it on TV in the local news there.

    LAX originally meant “Los Angeles Transcontinental Airport”, where the “X” is an abbreviation for “trans” – one that has been around for centuries.
    Also, SFO means “San Francisco – Oakland” even though for decades Oakland has had its own airport – though not as large as the one in San Francisco.

    HEL means the Helsinki airport, and I have read that aircrewmen in Scandinavia joke about flying to HEL on Friday the 13th. By the way, the word “aircrewmen” includes females and males, just as do these words {airman, aviator, astronaut, seaman, soldier, coastguardsman, serviceman, and Marine}. I think that it is foolish that certain writers (of publicized text) feel compelled to write word phrases like “Coast Guard member” when the single word “coastguardsman” is available.

    Furthermore, in English, a nurse can be either a man or a woman. However, in German the female is “die Krankenschwester” (a sister for the sick) but the male is “der Pfleger” (someone who takes care of other people). Furthermore, “die Pflegerin” is a female nurse, too. The German suffix “in” indicates a female, such as “die Lehrerin” (female teacher) and “der Lehrer” (male teacher).
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In German, nearly all words that end in “er” are masculine, even inanimate objects such as “der Computer”.

    There has been a trend in German towards natural gender in new words (but not Computer!). Hence, we have “das Auto”, “das Radio”, “das Radar” – but unfortunately “der Transistor”. For airplanes, there was always “das Flugzeug”, but all words that end in “zeug” are neuter in German. On the other hand, there is “der Hubschrauber” = helicopter, but that is a word that ends in “er”. The ending “zeug” indicates some kind of a tool or device, and these have always been neuter in German.

    On the other hand, in Spanish and French, everything is either masculine or feminine. I have read that in the French Academy, there was a great deal of discussion over “le microchip” or “la microchip”. I don’t know what they decided, nor about what they decided about “bulldozer”. I do know that in French this word is supposed to have four syllables instead of just three. It is pronounced like “bull-do-ze-ir”, according to what I read.

    I am happy that we do not bother with all of this in English anymore, and we haven’t for at least 400 years.
    D.A.W.

  • Roberta B.

    @D.A.W. – Are you on some kind of speed? You’re tedious! As I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, quit being a hog and go start your own blog! Get a clue!

  • venqax

    DAW: I think when he referred to Chicago in the main post, MN meant the Chicago Manual of Style‘s guidelines and not an abbreviation for the city of Chicago.

  • bill

    @D.A.W. – your info about the X in LAX is incorrect. googling “los angeles transcontinental airport” in quotes returns 3 results. two of them are your posts and the third is quoting you.

    all other internet sources on the matter, including the FAQ of the website for the airport, say that the X was added to the end of a number of two-digit airport codes when the system was changed to a three-digit system, and there was no particular reason for the X.

    for the record, the wikipedia page for LAX has no reference to “transcontinental” in the name of the airport, in history or otherwise. i note that so that if it pops up on there (as a forth internet reference to this ‘fact), it will be clear that it is a recent add.

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