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Why is the U.S. singular?

Q: I am a faculty assistant at Columbia Law and one of my professors recently came across a book that says the United States was frequently referred to as plural before the Civil War and singular after the war. Can you shed any light on this? Was the Civil War a linguistic as well as a historical turning point?

A: The Civil War historian James McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, apparently saw the war as a turning point for singularity. I’ll quote from an article in John Hopkins Magazine (April 2001) about McPherson’s work:

“From his vast reading, he notes that before 1861, the public tended to treat ‘United States’ as a plural: ‘The United States are moving toward war.’ After the conflict, U.S. became singular: ‘The United States is looking forward to peace and reconciliation.’ McPherson traces changes in Abraham Lincoln’s vocabulary as well, with the word ‘nation’ gradually replacing ‘union’ in his speeches as the war progressed.”

Similar observations have been made by the historians Shelby Foote and Thomas E. Woods Jr. In an interview for Ken Burns’s documentary “The Civil War,” Foote remarked:

“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.'”

But Benjamin Zimmer, editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, looked into the issue and concluded that the transformation of “United States” from plural to singular wasn’t nearly as smooth and symbolic as Foote suggested.

In an extensive posting to the Language Log, Zimmer offers evidence that the issue of whether “United States” should be singular or plural was still being debated nearly four decades after the war.

He cites a May 4, 1901, article in the New York Times under the headline, “ARE OR IS: Whether a Plural or a Singular Verb Goes With the Words United States.” The article, written by John W. Foster, a former Secretary of State, notes public figures who used the singular before and after the war.

The Civil War probably sped up the change from plural to singular, but the transformation apparently wasn’t as dramatic as some historians have suggested. In fact, Zimmer points out that the plural form is still around in some idioms, like “these United States.”

“So even now,” he writes, “the pluribus sometimes outweighs the unum.”

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