Modern Software Experience



Place Names

How place names should be entered in genealogy databases is still a topic of discussion. One issue that continues to be debated is whether you should append the word county to county names when entering counties.



Some users feel that having the word county after each name adds clarity to their genealogical reports. The easiest way to make sure it is on the report is by entering it into the database, but is it right or wrong to do so?


Then, if you choose to append county to counties, should you spell it out, or abbreviate it to co.? I’ll add another question that was not asked on that wave; if you do include county, should you uppercase the letter C and spell it County or use an all-lowercase word?

Appending county to counties is like appending city to cities, province to provinces, and country to countries. You should not do any of those things.

doing it right

Doing it right is very simple. You list the hierarchy of names. If the word county is not part of the county name, it should not appear. If it is part of the name, you spell the name as it is - and that answer the question about abbreviation or casing. You should neither adorn or abbreviate a name.

Appending county to counties is like appending city to cities, province to provinces, and country to countries. You should not do any of those things.

Colorado county

Not abbreviating and not adding county immediately avoids the problem of whether the abbreviation Co stand for country or for Colorado. You simply do not abbreviate either.


You should not append county to counties, and not append city to cities either. You should only include the word city when it is actually part of the name - and it sometimes is.

New York City

The phrase New York City is an informal shorthand for New York in New York. You may say and write New York City to simultaneously avoid confusion with any New York in England as well as confusion with the state of New York in the United States of America. The phrase New York City is widely understood, but the name of the city is New York (sans City), so that is what goes into your database. The full database entry should be New York, New York, United States of America, not New York City, New York, United States of America.

Salt Lake City

Then again, Salt Lake City in Salt Lake county is really called Salt Lake City, so that City does go into your database. The full database entry should be Salt Lake City, Salt Lake, Utah, United States of America, not Salt Lake, Salt Lake, Utah, United States of America.


One reason some users desire to add the word county is that they are in the habit of leaving off the province (state) and country. Such a habit is wrong to start with. You should always list the complete hierarchy.
With a complete place name hierarchy, there should be no confusion possible, no need for adorning county names. It should be so obvious that the county name is a county name, that appending county to it does not seem desirable anymore.

When you leave of the country name, you create room for confusion.


It may be tempting to get into the habit of not entering the country name when all individuals in a genealogy live within the same country, but it is wrong. When you leave of the country name, you create room for confusion. There should be no room for confusion, nor any doubt about the existence of that room. Every place, no matter how unique the place name, should be fully specified.

This is especially true when you live in the United States of America, where many places and regions are named after original places and regions in Europe. Leaving off the country name rarely creates confusion for Old World genealogies. For New World genealogies, leaving off the country name practically ensures confusion.

For example, Georgia is not a region within the United States of America, Georgia is a country in Europe. To indicate the region within the United States of America instead of the country, you must use Georgia, United States of America.

Using abbreviations instead of full names increases the possibility for confusion even further. On its own, CA is the two-letter abbreviation for Canada, not California. To specify California using abbreviations, you’d have to write CA, USA.

You should not do so. You should never use abbreviations, not even very common ones, that you believe to unambigous. You may believe that USA is universally understood to mean United States of America, but you would be wrong. It might just as well mean Union of South Africa.

everything is assumed to be…

Some authors have promoted laziness and thus confusion by saying that everything is assumed to be in the United States of America unless otherwise stated. That is obvious nonsense, as everyone knows that everything is assumed to be in Antarctica unless otherwise stated…

most important

The simple truth is that the country is the most important place level. Historical archives are organised by location, so the country is all-important in tracking down records. In genealogical research, you often need to know the actual place name or at least the municipality to track down an original record, but the first thing you need to know is the country. You should never leave it off.


It may seem cumbersome to type a rather long country name such as United States of America as part of almost every place name, and it is, but you will quickly get faster at typing it and if you really don’t want to do it, you can still do the right thing by creating some macro that types it for you. Use such a convenience to make things easy for you, just do not make things difficult for your readers.


When you do not append county to county names, you do not have to wonder about either casing or abbreviations, but there still are many other abbreviations to consider.

When you live in a country, you may have gotten used to abbreviating the names of its regions. There may even be standard for those abbreviations in postal addresses. Even when there is no single standard, when there are multiple abbreviations, for example both three-letter abbreviations and two-letter abbreviations, the natives are rarely confused. However, do not expect such national abbreviations to be understood by those living elsewhere. To make sure that all place names are understood by all readers, you should not abbreviate any region name.


Another reason to not abbreviate region name is that a single region may not only have multiple abbreviations, but that a single abbreviation could refer to multiple region. When you do use abbreviations instead of full names, you are turning reading of place names into a guessing game.

For example, the NB abbreviation is used for New Brunswick, but was also used for Nebraska. The abbreviation for Nebraska was changed to NE, which is itself easily misunderstood as an abbreviation for Nevada.

One of the worst abbreviations used in the United States of America is MI; does it stand for Mississippi, Missouri, Michigan or Minnesota? It is currently used for Michigan, but with four possible choices the MI abbreviation should have been avoided altogether.
The MA abbreviation isn’t much better. You might think MA is the abbreviation for Maine, but Maine is abbreviated to ME, while MA is used for Massachusetts, and Maryland is abbreviated to MD.

Using abbreviations turns reading place names into a guessing game for the reader. That is a great way to annoy readers and slow them down, so if that is your goal, you should use AMAAP (as much abbreviations as possible).

When you use abbreviations, an otherwise fine place name is likely to be misunderstood by at least some readers because of it. Thus, using abbreviations already causes problems when you use the right abbreviation, but the examples show that there is plenty of room to pick a wrong abbreviation upon data entry.

historical abbreviations

It gets worse. Not only is it possible to misunderstand an abbreviation like MI as Mississippi, Missouri or Minnesota, it is also possible to misunderstand an abbreviation such as MN. Today it is used for Minnesota, but is has been used for Maine.

If you come across a historical document using MN for Maine, you transcribe it as is, you do not expand the abbreviation, but you may want to add a note to that transcription that is Maine, not Minnesota. But how should you enter the place name in your database?

Should you using MN for Maine for historical correctness, or should you be using MN for Minnesota for consistency? The historically correct abbreviation is likely to be misunderstood by those who do not know about the historical usage, but always using the modern abbreviation is likely to be criticised by those who do know about the historical abbreviation.

You should sidestep all guessing games and possible misinterpretations by not abbreviating at all, but simply consistently use the full region names that are not open to misinterpretation.

Events should be documented using the names that were current at the time of the event.

historical place names

It is possible for someone to always live and work in the same town, yet be born in Saint Petersburg, marry in Petrograd (1914-1924), have children born in Leningrad (1924-1991), and die in Saint Petersburg.
If that is how it happened, that is how it should be documented. Events should be documented using the names that were current at the time of the event.

space limitation

making do

One issue you may run into when using older applications is that there is limited space for the place name, even so little that it forces you to abbreviate place names. In such cases the advice to not append country hardly needs to be given, but you will probably abbreviate province and country names. If you must do so, do try to use the official current abbreviations. You can also win a few characters by leaving the abbreviation stops out of abbreviated country names such as U.S.S.R. or U.S.A..


However, the real solution is to upgrade to a better application, and when you do, you may get a pleasant surprise; modern genealogy applications include support for place name standardisation.
RootsMagic 4, Legacy Family Tree 7 and Family Tree Maker 2008+ all include functionality to help you standardise the place names in your database. Legacy Family Tree 7 even includes a county verifier. It knows when county names changed and can check county names against the date for an event.

comma convention

It is customary to separate the levels in a place name hierarchy with commas, as we do in written text. That is simple enough, but there are two issues with this convention.

The basic rule for entering names is to enter each name as it is, without abbreviating or adorning it.

names with commas

The first and most fundamental issue is that this convention does not work very well with names that contain a comma. Such names are rare, but do exist.
Two examples are the former municipalities Eethen, Genderen en Heesbeen and Drongelen, Haagoort, Gansoijen en Doeveren, both in the province of Noord-Brabant in the Netherlands. That second example even has two commas in its name.

The basic rule for entering names is to enter each name as it is, without abbreviating or adorning it. However, when such names are included, most software tends to get so confused by it, that we must bend that rule a bit. Until software gets smarter about handling names with commas, these names are included without their commas.

commas without names

It may happen that you know a place name and a country but do not know the province. The best known example in the Netherlands is Hengelo. Until 2005, there were two medium cities called Hengelo, one in the province of Gelderland, and one in the province of Overijssel. Until the introduction of postal codes in 1978, it was common for post to arrive in the wrong city, and the post offices in both cities routinely rerouted post to the other one.

If you know an event occurred in Hengelo, but you do not know which one, you cannot enter a fully specified place name. It may be tempting to just leave the province out and write Hengelo, Netherlands, but that only creates confusion by suggesting that Hengelo is a province, so that is not wise.

The widely accepted solution is to keep the field for the province, but just leave it empty. The result is two commas between Hengelo and Netherlands: Hengelo, , Netherlands.

question mark convention

The problem with leaving a field empty is that you either two commas separated by space as shown above, or two consecutive commas. Both choices look like editing errors. It is also rather easy to overlook the fact that there are two commas, and read them as if there was just one.
Several genealogy applications output reports to some word processing format, and a modern word processor is likely to autocorrect a double comma back to a single one.

It is for all these reasons that I consider it best to use a question mark for any field that is missing: Hengelo, ?, Netherlands. The question mark goes in place of the missing field and thus serves many purposes at once.
The question mark is a reminder that there still is an open question. It may look a little odd the first time you see it, but the comma and space that separate the province from the country no longer look out of place. Instead, it is obvious that is a deliberate choice to have a field with question mark in it.

A double comma is easily misread or dismissed as an editing error, and a reader who is familiar with only one town by that name might erroneously assume we meant that particular town. The question mark is an explicit reminder that although the place name is known, the actual place is not known yet. In this particular example, the question mark prevents he reader from assuming a particular place by conveying the information that there is more than one possibility.

This convention also makes it quite easy to produce a report of all place names that are not fully known yet; just include all place names that contain a question mark. That makes it easy to find the remaining holes in your research. Not unimportantly, it is also very easy to adopt this convention or leave it again with simple search & replace commands.

application support

Several current genealogy application provide support for place name standardisation, but the place name functionality in those applications is not mature yet.

Legacy Family Tree

 Legacy 7 uses Microsoft Virtual Earth, which apparently does not understand that places lie within a municipality. Additionally, Legacy’s own country verifier is clearly a first version; it will tell you that a county did not exist at the time, but will not tell what the right county is. When I tested it with my database, it failed to recognise Bad Axe, the former name of Vernon county. Legacy’s place name standardisation does not handle the question mark convention gracefully either.

Family Tree Maker

Family Tree Maker’s standardisation does not impress. It demands that you click a replace button, which replaces the correct United States of America with the abbreviation USA. Although wrong in principle, that replacement itself seems pretty harmless in practice. A bigger concern is that when FTM does not recognise either the place name, the municipality or the province, it will bluntly suggest that you replace all the information you have with just the country name. Following that suggestion results in severe loss of information, and that is a Bad Thing. apparently does not even know how to spell ’s-Gravenhage, although is the residence of Dutch government and the International Court of Justice, and will suggest that you change to its incorrect spelling! You need to be alert and should not definitely not unquestioningly follow its suggestions.

The Master Genealogist

The Master Genealogist (TMG) is not very smart about importing place names. It is not unusual for TMG to put place names in the country field. You can correct that afterwards, but TMG’s import could improve a lot if it merely used a master list of countries and their regions to help it make smarter choices.
TMG’s import expects a fixed-format and you get best results if your place names do include commas (with or without question marks) for any fields that are missing.


A shortcoming common to current genealogical applications is that they do not know about historical place names. Legacy features a historical county database for the United States of America, but it does not know about any other historical place names.

Still, whatever problems and limitations there still are with standardisation support, having this support is a large step up from not having it at all, and will surely help you to spot and fix typos and expand abbreviations to proper names.


How you store places in your database and what they look like on a report are two different things. Your database should contain New York, New New York, United States of America, but a smartly produced report application might still list that place as New York City.
A report might spell out United States of America just once, and then abbreviate it in the rest of the report. It could decide to leave out even more, and add county where appropriate.

What reports looks like really is a separate issue, that depends on the flexibility and smarts of the report generator. The important thing here that you should not let limited reporting capabilities of your current software seduce you into deliberately messing up your database. The place names in your database should be standardised. If you do not like the reports your software produces, do not try to fix it by adding the desired report formatting to your database, but look for other reporting software.

Your database should be as accurate as possible. That is not just an formal position, it is a practical one. Including fully specified accurate place names is essential to taking advantage of geographical databases and the geocoding features in modern genealogy applications.


Basic rules

Getting there

Genealogy software


This article was inspired by the recent discussion about place names in The Master Genealogist Public Wave created by Blake M. Stough, which started with a discussion about place name standardisation.