What to Do When a Possessive Blocks Punctuation

By Mark Nichol

When one refers to a city followed by the name of the state or a larger entity in which the city is located, the larger entity is set off from the smaller one by a pair of commas. But how do you treat such a reference when the place name is possessive? Revise the reference.

A DailyWritingTips.com reader sent me this note: “I came across this in this morning’s New York Times: “In Portland, Oregon’s Pearl District, Dave Trausneck said he draws inspiration from the many states he has called home.” I suppose there should be a comma after Oregon’s — but it sure would look hinky. It’s an awkward little phrase. What do you think? Should it be recast to read, “In the Pearl District, in Portland, Oregon, Dave Trausneck said he draws inspiration from the many states he has called home”?

Oddly, as far as I know, this question is not resolved in any writing or editing handbooks, but some online commentators agree with the reader and me that a comma after Oregon would be quite hinky. But the New York Times usage, as she suggests, possesses some hinkiness of its own. I would change it with a revision similar to hers, but with a construction that reduces the comma count: “In the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon, Dave Trausneck said he draws inspiration from the many states he has called home.”

A similar aberration appears in such sentences as “The Albany, New York-based company was founded in 1999.” Technically, the hyphen, to demonstrate that “New York,” not just York, is being attached to based as a phrasal adjective, should be an en dash, but that subtlety is lost on many readers (and writers).

Regardless, it’s better to write around this style break: “The company, based in Albany, New York, was founded in 1999.” Alternatively, consider whether “based in” is superfluous — it’s relevant only if the company is headquartered in Albany, New York, but has other locations — and delete the phrase if appropriate: “The Albany, New York, company was founded in 1999.”

Then there’s the intrusive insertion of a parenthesis between the possessive form of a name and the noun it refers to, as in “The law went into effect when Russia’s (then the Soviet Union) road use was not as heavy because fewer citizens owned vehicles.” Should “Soviet Union” also be possessive? No, because it’s a parenthetical insertion of the different name of the country during the period being referred to. But revise the syntax to avoid the possessive form altogether: “The law went into effect when road use in Russia (then the Soviet Union) was not as heavy because fewer citizens owned vehicles.”

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6 Responses to “What to Do When a Possessive Blocks Punctuation”

  • Lucas

    I think “The Albany” is the name of the company. So the sentence “The company, based in Albany, New York, was founded in 1999″ should be wrong.
    Maybe he meant “The company, based in New York, was founded in 1999”.
    Lucas

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    I don’t think a comma is required after the state name. I think the NY Times article got it right. I don’t think the state name or country name is a nonrestrictive element that should be set off with commas. For example:

    “Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s River Center was used to house evacuees from New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina.”

    You might argue the construction of the sentence is not the best and should be recast, but I think it is grammatically correct, as, evidently, did the NY Times.

  • Philip D

    I would write – “The law went into effect during the period when Russia was part of the the Soviet Union, road use was not as heavy then as it is today, because fewer citizens owned vehicles.”

    Not only does that avoid the use of both a parenthetical clause, and the possessive form, it also doesn’t mislead the reader into thinking that the Soviet Union and Russia are one and the same.

    It’s easy to lose sight of the value of accurate substance. I often find that seeking it out leads to better grammatical form.

  • Mark Nichol

    Lucas:

    No, Albany is the city name. The revised sentence is correct.

  • Mark Nichol

    Chuck:

    The style in which a state or country name is bracketed by commas after a city name is almost universal. Sources disagree on whether the possessive form of a city-state or city-country combination, in which the closing comma is omitted, is valid. I recommend against this form.

  • Mark Nichol

    Philip D:

    Your revision results in a comma splice. I would alter your revision to “The law went into effect during the period when Russia was part of the the Soviet Union and road use was not as heavy then as it is now.”

    Also, I see your point about the fact that “Russia” is not strictly equivalent in scope to “the Soviet Union,” but I think that’s an overly precise technicality.

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