"United States"—Plural vs. Singular

When did the change happen, and how quick was it? [UPDATE: For more comprehensive data, see this post.]


A commenter on the Republic/Democracy thread mentioned the shift from "United States" being seen as a plural noun—e.g., the Constitution's "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them" or the Thirteenth Amendment's "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction"—to the modern treatment of the "United States" being singular ("the United States is …").

This reminded me of an earlier post, which cites an item by Mark Liberman (Language Log). Liberman was commenting on the assertion that,

Before the war, it was said "the United States are." Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always "the United States is," as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an "is."

Liberman investigated—see the link above for the start of his investigation—and discovered that, according to Minor Myers, Supreme Court Usage and the Making of an 'Is', 11 Green Bag 2d 457 (2008), usage changed quite gradually, at least in the Supreme Court. To quote Myers,

This survey examines use of the phrases "United States is" and "United States are" in opinions of the United States Supreme Court from 1790 to 1919. It demonstrates that the familiar claim about the timing of the change is not accurate. In the Supreme Court, the plural usage – "United States are" – did not end with the Civil War. Although patterns of usage changed abruptly in the 1860s, justices continued to use the plural form through the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the plural usage was the predominant usage in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Only in the beginning of the twentieth century did the singular usage achieve preeminence and the plural usage disappear almost entirely….

The Civil War does not appear to have altered the Supreme Court's usage in a fashion as dramatic as [some] have suggested. In the 1860s, the usage pattern shifts away from "are" and toward "is," and it is during that decade that usage of "is" first predominates. But the change is not wholesale – "are" and "is" were used roughly equally in the 1860s. In the following decade, Court usage reverted back to antebellum patterns. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, plural usage predominated in Supreme Court opinions, though by slowly declining margins.

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  1. I would think that Supreme Court opinions are too small a niche to really investigate this, especially as the justices serve so long.

  2. Interestingly, that seems to correspond with the attitude of southern states to the Union. I’ve read historians pointing toward the Spanish-American War as around the time that southerners saw themselves as patriotic Americans.

    1. The Confederates always saw themselves as patriotic Americans.

      1. Not wanting to be a pedant, I’ve turned this over a couple of times in my head. And I seriously don’t understand what you’re getting at.
        The Confederates literally did not see themselves as Americans (USA Americans at least), patriotically or not.

        1. The Great Seal of the Confederate States of America includes a prominent image of George Washington wearing his Revolutionary War uniform mounted on a horse.

          Did not see themselves as Americans? Hah!

  3. It’s a quirk of American English that we Americans tend to make nouns collective with time, and hence it changes from plural to singular in American English.

  4. Am I the only one reading this and getting “yeah, the original quote is basically right, and while he’s disagreeing with it, he’s pretty much proved it”?

    1. No, I thought the exact same thing. The time lag (assumedly based on the service time of Supreme Court justices, and the conservative way that language spreads into those opinions) is just more evidence.

  5. In the Constitution, there are at least several references to “the several states,” which would seem to imply plural. United States is noun and a plural one at that–otherwise you have to deal with the sound of one hand clapping. A ~Union~ of states, though, would be singular. Current usage is documented in the dictionary and is supposed to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. But sometimes it’s just plain wrong. “Data,” for example, is almost uniformly used as a singular singular. It’s not: a datum is singular while data provide [not provides] evidence.

    For that matter, it amazes–and rankles me–that so many university bookstores, even supposedly high-end ones–sell license plate frames saying “XYZ Alumni.” How many are there in that family? I’ve seen a few–VERY few–that say alumnus or alumna. I they think that alumnus or alumna is ostentatious, they could dodge the issue completely and just say “graduate,” or “tuition payer.”

  6. Liberman: “Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states.”

    Or we could talk about a bunch of states which are so “United” that they pooled their sovereignty to create an unbreakable “Union” – singular –

    (“calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union” “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union” “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government”)

    and a “Government of the United States” (singular)

    I would simply square this circle by saying that the (singular) federal government of the unbreakable “Union” of states wields certain powers on behalf of the states – including fairly major powers like commercial regulation, war and peace, and civil rights – that not only is the Union sovereign within its sphere, it wields the collective power of the states, even as against dissenting states. So a rebellious state is rebelling against all the state, itself included.

  7. Meanwhile, I am taught that Lincoln-16 killed the union to save the Union, making the plural construction still correct.

    – Or –

    The USA has long been a salad bowl and not a melting-pot, and the crudit?s are ever crunchier and more intractable.

  8. Matthew Sag investigated the the shift from plural to singular for his amicus briefs in the HathiTrust and Google Books cases. He used Google’s ngrams to plot usage in books and placed the shift in the second half of the 19th century. See http://matthewsag.com/?p=725.

  9. Google ngrams suggests that singular and plural were used with roughly the same frequency at
    the beginning of the 19th century and the singular form gradually became more dominant.
    E.g., the following summarizes the ratios:

    Year Singular/plural

    1800 1.0

    1830 1.0
    1840 1.1
    1850 1.2
    1860 1.35
    1870 1.5
    1880 1.55
    1890 1.62
    1900 1.8
    1910 2.0
    1920 2.0

    2000 2.6

    I don’t see any particular signature of the Civil War there.

    1. If I’m reading this correctly (and I might not be–I’ve never really played with Google ngrams), the singular form was only 2.6 times as popular and the plural form in 2000. That doesn’t seem at all right to me. I can’t remember the last time I saw the plural form in modern writing.

      1. Often “the United States is” or “the United States are” appears in cases where “United States” isn’t the actual subject of the verb. I discussed this in a separate comment replying to taqmcg.

    2. The transition is masked by instances where “United States” is not the subject of the verb, such as “the Government of the United States is…” or “the people of the United States are…” You can control for this in Google ngrams to some degree by making sure the search is case-sensitive and making your search strings “The United States is” and “The United States are.” This ensures that “the United States” is at the beginning of the sentence and is the subject of the verb.

      Searching in this manner shows a much stronger preference for the singular in the early 19th century and overwhelming dominance of the plural in the 20th century.

  10. If we’re quoting from an old source saying, “The United States are . . .” do we put in [sic]? This was a bugbear in Law Review.

  11. So, what *should* people say today – is or are? Is this a legal issue or a grammar issue?

  12. Similarly, we would say the UAE is a federal monarchy, not the UAE are a federal monarchy. Personally, I wouldn’t put (sic) into quotations of century old passages when there was no typo at the time the passage was written.

  13. Sic erat scriptum has nothing in particular to do with typography, being instead notice that the original was thus written.

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