Geography Refresher

Is it more correct for English speakers to write “Deutschland” as the name for the country in northern central Europe, or “Germany”? Or, in the middle of a sentence, is it more correct to write “the United Arab Emirates” or “The United Arab Emirates” for the country in the Middle East? And is “Mumbai” more correct to use when writing the name of this city in western India than “Bombay” is?

These are but a few geographic conundrums that PR pros come across in writing about a world that is increasingly connected. And since one of our mantras is “accuracy, accuracy, accuracy,” it’s important to keep these names and places straight. What’s more, some seemingly straightforward geographic terms continue to confuse and confound.

In my role as editor, I frequently come across this problem, and below I’ve listed some of the most common geographic terms that cause confusion and the best ways to handle the writing of them. See if any of these are tricky for you.

Foreign Names – The names of foreign cities, countries and regions should be written in the native language of your audience, not in the native language of that city, country or region. For example, when writing for an English-speaking audience, use “Spain” instead of the Spanish name, “España”; “Bavaria” instead of the German name, “Bayern”;  “Normandy” instead of the French name, “Normandie”; and, despite what the 2006 Winter Olympics logo says, “Turin” instead of the Italian name, “Torino.” There are two reasons for this. First, it follows the spelling and pronunciation that the local target audience is familiar with. Second, in the case of English speakers, for example, while the roman-based languages (i.e., languages that use the typestyle you are reading now) of Western Europe can be reproduced in English without many issues because they use the same alphabet, this is not the case for languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi or Russian. There is no way to make a character-for-character translation between the English alphabet and these languages’ alphabets. Thus, both for consistency and simplicity, keep the names of foreign places in your or your audience’s native language.

“The” in City and Country Names – When the article “the” is used with a place name, it’s capitalized with a city name (e.g., “The Hague” or “The Dalles” [in Oregon]) but not with country names (e.g., “the Netherlands” or “the Vatican” or “the Philippines”).

U.S. and U.K. – Use periods when writing these abbreviations. However, don’t use periods in the three-letter “USA” abbreviation. One of the biggest inconsistencies that can mar a document with multiple contributors, such as a request for proposal, is spelling “U.S.” and “U.K.” both ways. To be sure, this is a minor thing and the spellings “US” and “UK” are not incorrect, just not the preferred style. Nonetheless, take care to make sure they’re written consistently throughout a document.

EU – Don’t use periods in the abbreviation for the European Union.

Benelux – This acronym for “Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg” is not well-known, so it should be explained if it’s used.

MENA – Similarly, this new initialism for “Middle East North Africa” should also be explained if it’s used.
St. Petersburg, Russia – The name of this city was changed by the government from “Leningrad” in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was originally named “St. Petersburg” in 1703, then changed to “Petrograd” in 1914, and then changed to “Leningrad” 10 years later.

India – In the last two decades, a movement has taken place across India to change the names of some of its largest cities to less-Anglicized spellings and pronunciations. Consequently, the names below should be used for the following cities:

  • Bangalore, India – In 2006, the regional government in southern India voted to change this city’s name to “Bengaluru,” but the name change has been held up by bureaucratic processes, so the name remains “Bangalore” for now.

  • Mumbai, India – This city was “Bombay” until 1995, when the state government dropped the city’s colonial name and renamed it in honor of the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi.

  • Kolkata, India – Formerly “Calcutta,” this city changed its name in 1999 to a closer approximation of the Bengali name for the city.

  • Chennai, India – This city’s name was changed from “Madras” in 1996 to reflect the local Tamil language.

U.S. State Abbreviations – A common mistake made by anyone who has ever addressed an envelope for a U.S. mailing address is using the double-capital-letter postal abbreviation for a state instead of the journalistic abbreviation. Remember, the correct abbreviation for the state of New York is “N.Y.” — not “NY” without periods. Likewise, “Texas” should not be abbreviated at all; it should just be written as “Texas” – not “TX.” And Pennsylvania is “Pa.” – not “PA.” Refer to page 266 of the 2010 AP Stylebook for a complete listing of journalistic abbreviations for states.

Washington, D.C. – The second part of this name continues to trip up PR pros for a few reasons. In the first place, in most cases, when this name is written, it’s clear from the context that it’s the U.S. capital being referred to and therefore not necessary to include the “D.C.” since there is little chance it could be confused with the state of Washington. Next, if used, “D.C.” should be written with periods. Last, “D.C.” should be separated by a comma, and if it appears in mid-sentence, should be separated by commas before and after it.

Are there any others you would add to this list? I would love to get your thoughts.