The Grammarphobia Blog

An element of style

Q: HELP! The New York Times says things like this: “Nassau and Suffolk counties” and “First, Second, and Third avenues.” My knee-jerk reaction is to capitalize the “c” in counties and the “a” in avenues. WHY, why, why does the Times make them lowercase? Is this correct?

A: The Times practice is a matter of house style rather than of grammar. But I think it makes sense.

If you’re talking about several streets or avenues in combination, only the principal part of the name should be capitalized. The generic part (“streets” or “avenues”) shouldn’t be. So it would be correct to refer to “First, Second, and Third avenues.”

For the same reason, the principal names of counties are capitalized, but the generic part (when several names are combined) would not be: “Nassau, Suffolk, and Putnam counties.” Similarly, “the Chrysler, Empire State, and Citicorp buildings.”

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