November 24, 2005

Life in these, uh, this United States

It's Thanksgiving, the high holy day of the American civil religion, and as good a time as any to reflect on the terms America and the United States. In her always enlightening column "The Word," Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe recently examined a peculiar usage by President Bush in a speech at the end of his Latin America trip earlier this month:

Freedom is the gift of the Almighty to every man and woman in this world — and today this vision is the free consensus of a free Americas. It is a vision ... that puts what was once a distant dream within our reach: an Americas wholly free and democratic and at peace with ourselves and our neighbors.

Bush's usage of Americas is not simply the latest example of the President's penchant for construing ostensibly plural nouns as grammatically singular. (That quirk is mostly limited to combining plural nouns with singular copulas; see, for instance, the most recent Bushism catalogued by Jacob Weisberg, in which Bush informs his South Korean hosts, "I know relations between our governments is good.") This was a prepared speech, not spontaneous discourse, and the choice of singular Americas was a conscious one by Bush's speechwriters (the usage also appeared in a Bush speech in June at a meeting of the Organization of American States).

As Freeman writes, singular Americas is being pressed into service by speechwriters and policymakers in need of a simple, unifying term for the nations of the Western Hemisphere now intertwined in various political and trade agreements. It's possible to avoid the singular vs. plural question by using Americas in contexts without overt grammatical markers for number (as in Bush's statement, "Ensuring social justice for the Americas requires choosing between two competing visions"). But when Americas appears in concord with determiners, verbs, and pronouns marked as singular, it sounds odd to those outside of hemispheric policy circles.

Freeman rightly observes that this transformation from plural to singular mirrors the history of the phrase the United States. The change from the United States are to the United States is was not at all smooth, and has even served as a linguistic emblem for the nation's own turbulent history: "the Civil War is often credited with (or blamed for) transforming 'the United States' into a singular noun," Freeman writes. But how much truth is there to the claim that the Civil War was the watershed moment for the singularization of the United States, and how did that idea get spread around in the first place?

Other milestones for the shift in usage have been proposed (such as the War of 1812), but it's the Civil War theory that has had the most resonance in the popular imagination. The claim received a great deal of attention when it was made by the historian Shelby Foote (who passed away in June) in Ken Burns' much-watched PBS documentary series The Civil War, first broadcast in 1990. In an interview for the documentary that appeared in the companion book The Civil War: An Illustrated History, Foote said:

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."

Foote's assertion echoes one made in 1909 by the renowned classics scholar (and former Confederate soldier) Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve in a lecture collected in Hellas and Hesperia; or, The vitality of Greek studies in America:

It was a point of grammatical concord which was at the bottom of the Civil War — "United States are," said one, "United States is," said another.
—quoted in Soldier and Scholar: Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve and the Civil War by Ward W. Briggs Jr. (1998), p. 22

Though Gildersleeve's quote circulated widely (and may have been the basis for Foote's argument), he wasn't the first to put forth this idea. The earliest example I've found so far appeared in the Washington Post in 1887:

There was a time a few years ago when the United States was spoken of in the plural number. Men said "the United States are" — "the United States have" — "the United States were." But the war changed all that. Along the line of fire from the Chesapeake to Sabine Pass was settled forever the question of grammar. Not Wells, or Green, or Lindley Murray decided it, but the sabers of Sheridan, the muskets of Sherman, the artillery of Grant. ... The surrender of Mr. Davis and Gen. Lee meant a transition from the plural to the singular.
—The Washington Post, Apr. 24, 1887, p. 4

Four years later, an article by G. H. Emerson (available on the American Periodicals Series database) elaborated on the argument:

The many histories are careful to distinguish between the Colonies and the States, but they have failed to impress the distinction, the immense and radical distinction, between the States and the United States. Early in the period of the Revolution there was, as just noted, a feeble incipiency of a Union in the Articles of Confederation, proposed in 1777 and ratified in March, 1781. For about a decade the states, under the technical name, "The United States of America," were a Confederacy; but when the Constitution was adopted the United States was. "They" gave place to "it." And as Mr. Fiske in his latest book, "Civil Government in the United States," has noted, the change from the plural to the singular was vital, though it has taken a War of Rebellion to make the difference unmistakable. The sovereign States were consolidated into a unit — a unit indeed with important limitations — when the Federal Constitution was adopted. The United States began not their but its history with the first inauguration of Washington as Chief Magistrate.
—"The Making of a Nation," by G. H. Emerson, in The Universalist Quarterly and General Review, Vol. 28 (
Jan. 1891), p. 49

Emerson argues that the United States became notionally singular with the ratification of the Constitution and the inauguration of Washington, though it took the Civil War to "make the difference unmistakable." But this doesn't really tell us anything about usage. Indeed, not only does the Constitution consistently use the plural construal, but so do official texts in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War — as with the pronominal anaphora used in the 13th Amendment:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

So how "unmistakable" could the shift from plural to singular have been? In any case, Emerson at least provides a source for the claim: Civil Government in the United States by John Fiske (1890). The text is available on Project Gutenberg, but there's nothing specifically linking the shift in usage to the Civil War:

From 1776 to 1789 the United States were a confederation; after 1789 it was a federal nation. The passage from plural to singular was accomplished, although it took some people a good while to realize the fact. The German language has a neat way of distinguishing between a loose confederation and a federal union. It calls the former a Staatenbund and the latter a Bundesstaat. So in English, if we liked, we might call the confederation a Band-of-States and the federal union a Banded-State. There are two points especially in our Constitution which transformed our country from a Band-of-States into a Banded-State. [etc.]

So Fiske only said "it took some people a good while" to move from the plural to singular construal, while Emerson explicitly pointed to the Civil War as the crucial moment. Again, like the Gildersleeve quote, none of this tells us anything about actual changes in usage. The earliest analysis I can find that tackles the usage question with actual research is a May 4, 1901 column in the New York Times book review by John W. Foster, secretary of state under Benjamin Harrison. The headline for Foster's piece reads: "ARE OR IS? Whether a Plural or a Singular Verb Goes With the Words United States." This is evidence that four decades after the Civil War, the plural vs. singular question was still open to debate. (Jan Freeman notes that usage guides of the early 20th century were divided on the issue, with Ambrose Bierce coming out against the singular in 1909, the same year as Dr. Gildersleeve's pronouncement.)

Secretary Foster's column was in response to a book review of A Century of American Diplomacy that took issue with the book's singular construal of United States on the grounds that the Constitution treats it as plural. Foster first notes that the Constitution also construes such nouns as House of Representatives, Senate, and Congress as plural, a usage later abandoned in American English. He then writes:

The fact that the plural use of the verb occurs in the Constitution in connection with that phrase is not of itself a controlling reason. It must have a deeper cause. Is it found in the fact that this Nation is made up of a collection of States, and that they cannot be ignored in the use of the phrase? It is naturally suggested that an event occurred in the sixties which relieved our language from that servitude. I do not, however, think that event was the only, or the controlling, reason why the use of the singular verb is permissible, and even more proper. The oneness of our Government was proclaimed long before the first shot was fired at the flag over Sumter.

Foster disputes the already circulating claim that the Civil War was entirely responsible for the change in usage. He then examines the writings of various antebellum statesmen and finds that figures such as Hamilton, Jefferson, Clay, and Webster did indeed tend to use the plural form, but more often tried to avoid the problem by using a singular substitute like the Union, the Republic, or the Government of the United States. Foster conjectures that earlier writers were more concerned with euphony, while later writers focused on "the true significance of the words." He also notes that nations like Great Britain, France, and Germany have often been treated as feminine singular entities, based on the Latin forms Britannia, Gallia, Germania, etc. The feminine pronoun she was often used for the United States as well, but he says that "of late years we have gradually drifted into the custom of adopting the neuter it, which makes necessary the use of the singular verb."

After providing a long list of public figures who used the singular form both before and after the Civil War, Foster concludes:

The result of my examination is that, while the earlier practice in referring to the "United States" usually followed the formula of the Constitution, our public men of the highest authority gave their countenance, by occasional use, to the singular verb and pronoun; that since the civil war the tendency has been toward such use; and that to-day among public and professional men it has become the prevailing practice.

As it turned out, Foster's research had some important policy implications. A Jan. 8, 1902 article in the Washington Post reported that Foster's work (which evidently was reprinted as a pamphlet) had persuaded the House of Representative's Committee on Revision of the Laws to rule that the United States should be treated as singular, not plural.

But Foster's careful, gradualist argument did not capture the public imagination the way that Gildersleeve's more forceful version did. A New York Times article about Gildersleeve on Oct. 21, 1923 (shortly before his death) restated his comment from 1909:

A Confederate soldier and officer during the Civil War, which he used to say was fought to settle a question of grammar (that is, the question as to whether "the United States" was singular or plural), he carried his pocket Homer till the day that he lost not only it but his pistol and his horse and all but his life.

Still, even Gildersleeve's formulation seems to be more of a rhetorical device than an observation based on the study of usage. It took Foote and others to transmogrify this rhetoric into the unsupportable claim that the United States was always construed as plural before the Civil War and always as singular afterwards.

Nowadays the plural form still lingers in certain set idioms, such as these United States. A common antebellum designation for the country, these United States survived in the 20th century in folksy idiomatic usage. It had something of a revival in the years after World War II, as evidenced by the Reader's Digest feature begun around that time, "Life in These United States." Harry Truman seemed particularly fond of the construction — searching on the website for the Truman Presidential Museum & Library turns up two dozen citations for these United States in speeches during his administration (mostly in the election years of 1948 and 1952). Even official government agencies occasionally use the phrase: the EPA issued a study on "How We Use Water In These United States," while the FBI reports on "Crime in These United States." So even now, the pluribus sometimes outweighs the unum.

When Ambrose Bierce made his plea against singular United States, he wrote:

It would be pretty hard on a foreigner skilled in the English tongue if he could not venture to use our national name without having made a study of the history of our Constitution and political institutions. Grammar has not a speaking acquaintance with politics, and patriotic pride is not schoolmaster to syntax.

Bierce is usually quite reliable in such matters, but in this case he misread the situation. Sometimes grammar has more than a speaking acquaintance with politics, even if they make strange bedfellows.

(Much of the above appeared in a post I wrote last year for the alt.usage.english newsgroup. Thanks to Donna Richoux and other a.u.e regulars for their contributions.)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 24, 2005 01:56 AM