Words fascinate me. I love to learn new words, to revel in the onomatopoeia of certain words like tintinnabulation or bark. I love to learn the history of words as well, to see where we’ve come and possibly guess where we’re going.
I love words.
All of which goes to say that I’ll be talking about words today. More specifically, the use of is and are. Don’t worry, though, it’s not going to be boring. Promise.
Here’s my question: When did the United States become a singular noun, instead of a plural one? I mean, think about it. There are 50 states comprising the United States. Notice the s there on the end of State? That’s to indicate that there are more than one state involved in the whole enterprise.
Which should mean that, in discussing the aggregate, we should be saying “The United States are going to welcome people from other nations.” Instead, what we hear these days is, in fact, singular: “The United States is going to welcome people from other nations.”
The even more intriguing thing is that, in the beginning? When the nation first pulled itself out of the chaos surrounding English occupation? We referred to the country in the plural: The United States are. . .
In an interesting bit of internet detective-izing, a redditor poster LeftHandedMasterRace, aka Kyle, decided to investigate a rather old quote that purported to answer the questin of the pluralized singularity. The quote is this: “There was a time a few years ago when the United States was spoken of in the plural number,”reads an article published April 24th, 1887, in The Washington Post. “Men said ‘the United States are’ — ‘the United States have’ — ‘the United States were.’ But the war changed all that.”
Was this really the case? LeftHandedMasterRace decided to find out. So he went digging using some actual Google tools actually designed for this sort of thing and found, oddly, that the quote wasn’t really an exaggeration. It wasn’t a piece of fluff designed to make something sound even better than it was.
He set up a program to check the use of “the United States are” and “the United States is” between 1760 and 2008. What he found was almost perfect backing for the Washington Post quote.
Although the plural usage continued well into the 20th century, it was on a quick trend downward toward zero. The reforging of the union following the Civil War really did seem to put the United States into the singular feeling.
We became a nation, holding states, rather than many states that stood together to form a nation. It’s a subtle difference, but one that says a lot about how we look at ourselves and our country.
A hat tip to Robert T. Gonzalez at io9.com for bringing this up.