November 19, 2016

410 words 2 mins read

United States: noun (plural)

Last week’s election demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the United States are still plural. Let me explain.

Language changes. Sometimes those changes alter what things mean. And because of the odd way the brain deals with language, some changes create constant confusion in our heads.

Once upon a time, “the United States of America” was a plural noun. (I’ll prove it to you in a moment.) Careful writers and speakers would say “the United States are . . . .” But, as I said, over time people changed that. Probably because the object of the prepositional phrase, " of America" is singular. (Subject-verb agreement baffles many people, especially people with MBAs.)

Some believe reconstruction led intellectuals to switch “United States” from plural to singular. This idea holds water when you look at an n-gram comparing relative frequency of the two usages:

[caption id=“attachment_21114” align=“aligncenter” width=“1024”]18vd8gkfbo4jfpng n-gram by redditor pqn clipped from[/caption]

The problem with treating “United States” as singular is that it’s a lie. The United States of America might be a single country, but the United States are independent in many ways. Though the states form a single nation, the states don’t stop being individual things.

Nowhere is the power of the states more obvious than in the sharp political distinctions of three of those United States: California, New York, and Massachusetts. Wall Street Journal writers Reid J. Epstein and Janet Hook explain:

Republican America is now so vast that a traveler could drive 3,600 miles across the continent, from Key West, Fla., to the Canadian border crossing at Porthill, Idaho, without ever leaving a state under total GOP control.

After last week’s election, Democrats hold the governor’s office and both legislative chambers in just six states—all of them on the Atlantic or Pacific oceans—compared with 25 for Republicans.

. . .

The geographic shift is clear in the political map of the House: When the new Congress takes office in January, about one third of all House seats held by Democrats will come from just three states—California, New York and Massachusetts.

Moreover, states, not people, elect the President.

One way you can help people avoid confusion about the way our country works is to start referring to the United States as plural. Modern grammarians will cringe, but our brains will like it better. America is singular, but the United States are plural. From many, one. E pluribus unum.

It’s easy and natural when you think about it.