What to Do When a Possessive Blocks Punctuation
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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