6 Names

6.2 Place names

6.2.1 General principles

Choosing the appropriate spelling of a name for a town, city, country, or geographical feature can be a tricky and sensitive matter. Consulting an authoritative recent atlas, or a dictionary that includes encyclopedic information, such as the Oxford Dictionary of English or the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, will help to establish the currently accepted form, but in many cases a choice must be made between alternative spellings.

Note that place names are always rendered in roman type, even if the form used is a foreign, unnaturalized one with unfamiliar spelling or accents:

rue St-Honoré

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

The modern tendency is to replace English versions of place names by the correct form in the local language, but it is far from being a universal rule: few writers in English would refer to Roma or München for Rome or Munich, for example. Be aware, also, that some local forms closely resemble their anglicized variant: be wary with Lyon and Lyons, Marseille and Marseilles, Reims and Rheims.

The following list provides examples of current Oxford preference for the names of some foreign cities when given in general—as opposed to specialist or historical—context:

Ankara (not Angora)

Beijing (not Peking)

Brussels (not Bruxelles or Brussel)

Florence (not Firenze)

Gdansk (not Danzig)

Geneva (not Geneve)

Livorno (not Leghorn)

Lyons (not Lyon)

Marseilles (not Marseille)

Reims (not Rheims)

Sichuan (not Szechuan or Szechwan)

Vienna (not Wien)

It is important to be aware of the sensitivities and contentious issues reflected in choices of name. Some particular points are expanded below:

  • • The island containing England, Wales, and Scotland is Britain; Great Britain is more usual when these countries are considered as a political unit; Great is a historical geographical term, to contrast it with Lesser Britain, an ancient name for Brittany. The United Kingdom is a political unit that includes these countries and Northern Ireland (but not the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands). The British Isles is a geographical term that refers to the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the surrounding islands, and does not connote ownership.

  • America is a land mass consisting of the continents of North and South America. It should be used to mean ‘the United States’ only when the context is very clear. North America is a continent that contains Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the countries of Central America (which is classed as the southernmost part of North America).

  • • The official names of some Indian cities have changed since 1995, with Mumbai replacing Bombay, Chennai superseding Madras, Kolkata supplanting Calcutta, and Bengaluru succeeding Bangalore. A book about modern India should certainly use the new forms, although if the work is intended for a general readership the names may be glossed with their traditional forms.

  • • The country between Poland and Russia is Belarus, not Belorussia or Byelorussia and certainly not White Russia.

  • • In contemporary contexts place names in China should be spelled with the Pinyin rather than the Wade–Giles system (see 12.3.3): Beijing and Guangzhou rather than Peking and Kwangchow. The old name of the latter, Canton, may be felt to be more appropriate in historical contexts.

  • • The area of the Congo in Africa needs particular care. The country known as Zaire between 1971 and 1997 is the Democratic Republic of Congo (capital, Kinshasa), whereas its much smaller neighbour is Congo or Republic of Congo (capital, Brazzaville); the latter is sometimes distinguished as Republic of Congo-Brazzaville.

Names of features such as lakes, oceans, seas, mountains, and rivers can lay traps for the unwary: strictly speaking, a descriptive term should not be added to a name in which it is already present. For example the meer in IJsselmeer and mere in Windermere mean ‘lake’, and the first part of the name of the Rio Grande means ‘river’ in Spanish.

Romanization can cause difficulties with place names; some guidance is given in Chapter 12 under the individual language.

6.2.2 Chronology

Places where the official language has changed owing to historical events may need to be identified or benefit from a gloss: Breslau (now Wrocław). In specialist or historical works the subject, historical period, and prospective readership will govern which language or form is used for a particular place name, though the usage for any given region must be consistent; editors should not automatically change a name given in the text to its modern equivalent. When the place name itself—not merely its linguistic form—has changed, do not use the new name retrospectively: refer to the Battle of Stalingrad, even though since 1961 the city has been Volgograd. This applies no less when the old name is restored: the Petrograd Soviet and the Siege of Leningrad should not be placed in St Petersburg, though naturally ‘(now St Petersburg)’ may be added if readers are thought to need it.

6.2.3 Locating places

It is sometimes necessary to distinguish places of the same name, to identify small places, or to clarify the name of a place when it has changed. In general it would be pedantic to refer to ‘Paris, France’ on the off-chance that one reader in a million might assume that ‘Paris’ standing alone referred to the place in Texas. Context will often make plain which of two places of the same name is meant: in a book about English churches it would be unnecessary to refer to ‘Boston, Lincolnshire’. However, in the same book, a reference to ‘Richmond’ would require identification (unless, of course, the surrounding matter located it unambiguously in Surrey or Yorkshire).

A small place may be located by reference to a larger place, a county, a surrounding area, or a country:

Fiesole near Florence
Newton, Warwickshire
St-Julien-de-Jonzy in Burgundy
Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo
It is important to avoid anachronisms in these cases: a modern reference to Hampstead might identify it as ‘in north London’, but a reference to John Constable’s taking a house there in the nineteenth century should identify Hampstead as ‘near London’ or ‘north of London’, or ‘in Middlesex’. Similarly, care should be taken with historical subject matter not to ‘correct’ references because they do not conform with modern reality: for example, the town of Abingdon was in Berkshire until boundary changes in 1974 ‘moved’ it to Oxfordshire.

6.2.4 Addresses

Use a comma to separate the elements in a run-on postal address, although the comma preceding the postcode may be omitted:

Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP, UK

Commas should be omitted altogether if the address is on separate lines, as on an envelope:

Great Clarendon Street

There is no comma after the street number:

23 Arnold Road

Postcodes are printed in capitals with no points or hyphens: OX2 6DP. Ensure that the letter O and the number 0 are distinguished. Postcodes are frequently set in small capitals rather than full capitals.

North American

US addresses have a zip code after the name of the town or city and the postal abbreviation of the state. The standard zip code consists of five numerals (with an optional further code of four more numerals, introduced by a hyphen) and is separated from the state abbreviation by a space:

198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016 (or 10016-4314)

On an envelope this address would be laid out as:

198 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016 (or 10016-4314)

Note that the convention for Manhattan addresses is to spell out numbers for avenue names and use figures for street names:

25 W. 43 St.
the corner of Fifth and 59th

In Canadian addresses the postal code is placed on the last line. The postal abbreviation of the province is written on the same line as the town or city name:

202 Hanson Street
Toronto, ON
M4C 1A7

Apartment addresses are written as, for example:

310-99 Gerard St


99 Gerard St, Apt 310


99 Gerard St, #310


The words rue, avenue, boulevard, etc. are not capitalized in French street names:

56 rue de Rivoli

12 boulevard Louis Pasteur

place de la République

The definite article in place names is lower case except at the start of a sentence (le Havre). Street numbers precede the name in France but follow it in Belgium.

Composite French place names are hyphenated:




rue du Faubourg-Montmartre

In German, Dutch, and Swedish addresses the equivalent of the word ‘road’ or ‘street’ is amalgamated with the name, so the issue of capitalization does not arise. Street numbers follow the name:

Friedrichstraße 10


Italian and Spanish street names take lower-case initials, and street numbers follow the name; Portuguese street names take upper-case initials:

piazza Luigi di Savoia 20

glorieta Puerta de Toledo 4

Travessa das Amoreiras

Get more from Oxford Dictionaries

Subscribe to remove adverts and access premium resources

New Hart's Rules