The United States as a subject

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The widely-watched PBS documentary The Civil War included this commentary by Shelby Foote:

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."

Innumerable history lectures have featured similar rhetoric, but as a biologist friend of mine once said about a popular but flamboyantly inventive documentary in his area of specialization, "this is, well, poetically true". In real life, that is, it's false. The civil war may have "made us an 'is'", but it doesn't seem to have brought about any abrupt change in the grammar of "the United States".

I write "doesn't seem to" because no one seems ever to have checked, at least not very thoroughly. So after a few years of intending to get to it, I've done a bit of poking around. And I've discovered two things. First, we need a change in how historical text archives are managed. (At least, I do.) And second, number-agreement — on whatever time scale it happened — is not at all, in my opinion, the most interesting historical change in the grammatical treatment of "the United States".

The executive summary of these two points: First, web-based search of digital text archives is well and good, but it's also critical for scholars to be able to run arbitrary computer programs over entire historical text corpora. In most cases, there's no provision for distribution of the texts that would make that possible; in some cases, the "business model" for the digitization process may actually prevent it.  Second, and more substantively, there's a striking increase during the 19th century in the propensity of the phrase "the United States" to occur in subject position, reflecting an increase in perceived agency and perhaps even in animacy (i.e. personification). In the early decades of the 19th century, "the United States" hardly ever occurs as a grammatical subject; today, about half of all textual occurrences are in subject position. Much more research will be needed to determine the time course of this change, but in newspaper text, it may have been associated with reporting and editorializing about military and diplomatic activities in the 1840s such as the struggle over Oregon and the Mexican-American War.

Let me start by tracing Shelby Foote's pontification to its historical roots. Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve wrote in Hellas and Hesperia; or, The vitality of Greek studies in America (1909) that

Not that I am ashamed of being a grammarian, and if I chose I might enlarge on the historical importance of grammar in general, and Greek grammar in particular. 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; and a whimsical scholar of my acquaintance used to maintain that the ignorance of Greek idiom that brought about the mistranslation "Men and brethren" (Acts ii, 29) is responsible for the humanitarian cry, "Am I not a man and a brother?" which made countless thousands mourn.

Gildersleeve, who fought for the Confederacy, is referring to a popular anti-slavery medallion by Josiah Wedgwood showing a kneeling slave in chains with the inscription "Am I not a man and a brother?". His little joke about United States number agreement was not apparently founded on any textual scholarship, but neither was it original — a similar thought can be found in G H Emerson, "The Making of a Nation", The Universalist Quarterly and General Review, January 1891:

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.

And Fiske in turn expressed the thought this way, in his 1891 work Civil Government in the United States Considered with some Reference to its Origins:

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.

All of these pre-Foote versions of the meme assume that the grammatical consequence of this political change was a gradual one, starting with the Constitutional Convention and proceeding through the 19th century. In this picture, the Civil War was one episode in a long argument over interpretation, starting earlier and continuing later; it was not the cause of any abrupt change in grammatical behavior.  Foote's contribution to this area of  meta-linguistic ideology was to invent (or at least popularize) the whole abrupt behavior-change story.

I've taken these citations from Ben Zimmer's discussions in alt.usage.english ("These United States", 10/5/2004), Language Log ("Life in these, uh, this United States", 11/24/2005) and in his Word Routes column at the Visual Thesaurus ("The United States Is… Or Are?", 7/3/2009). As Ben observes, there is at least one limited attempt at genuine textual scholarship on this point, in the form of a newspaper article by John W. Foster, "ARE OR IS?; Whether a Plural or a Singular Verb Goes With the Words United States", NYT, May 4, 1901:

The reason which has largely controlled the use of the plural verb with "United States" is one of euphony. It seems more natural and euphonistic to couple with this phrase "have" or "were," rather than "has" or "was." In public documents, such as the Presidents' messages, I find a number of examples where both the singular and plural forms are used in the same paper, and sometimes in the same sentence. For instance, Secretary Bayard: "The United States have no reason to believe that any discrimination against its citizens is intended." As the writer gets away from the phrase in the plural form, he escapes the euphonistic influence, and recurs to the the true significance of the words.

[...]

The result of a somewhat cursory examination of the treatment of "United States" by our public men and official bodies may be found curious, if not decisive of the proper or permissive use of the verb and pronoun in connection with that phrase. It is found that in the earlier days of the Republic the prevailing practice was the use of the plural, but even then many of our pulbic men at times employed the singular. Among statesmen who have used the the singular form may be cited Hamilton, Webster, Silas Wright, Benton, Schurz, Edmunds, Depew. Of our Secretaries of State Jefferson, Marcy, Sweard, Fish, Evarts, Baline, Frelinghuysen, Bayard, Gresham, and Olney. Among diplomats Motley, C. F. Adams, E.J. Phelps, and Reid. Of living professors of international law and lawyers Woolsey of Yale, Moore of Columbia, Huffcut of Cornell, and James C. Carter of New York. In the earlier message of the Presidents the use of the singular verb is seldom found, Jackson's being the only one noted; but in later years Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, Harrison, and McKinley. Messages of the last three are found in which the singular verb alone is used throughout the message in connection with "'United States."

The decision of the Supreme Court in the earlier years rarely show the use of the singular, but several cases have been found, and in later years its use has been growing much more frequent.

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.

For today, I'll close with a few counts and examples from the Pennsylvania Civil War Newspapers archive at Penn State, "A collection of newspapers from the civil war era dated from February 23,1831 to February 14,1877."

I checked the first 50 articles containing the phrase "the United States" in the year 1836, published between January 1 and April 25. These involved roughly 150 tokens of the phrase (I didn't try to count them, but there are typically several in an article where there is one). Of all of these, there was only one in subject position (with plural verb agreement), in a story about the Texas War of Independence:

Volunteers arrive daily; and our marine is in a state to blockade the Mexican ports. The result of the delay in the actual strife with the central government will be a radical separation; and if we may credit rumors, the United States propel to this; we shall see hereafter.

There is one other where "the United States" refers to the frigate rather than to the nation:

The United States, we believe, was built in Philadelphia. [refers to the ship "which has recently undergone a thorough repair at New York"]

The other examples are all attributives (the United States Mint, the United States Senate, the United States Infirmary, the United States Bank, the United States ports), or heads of prepositional phrases (the government of the United States, the president of the United States, the Bank of the United States, trade with the United States, the northern coasts of the United States), or verbal objects, or etc.

Searching similarly in the year 1846, I looked at the first 50 articles containing the phrase "the United States", published between January 1 and June 27. These contained 18 cases where the phrase occurs in subject position. (And singular agreement is almost as common and plural agreement.) FWIW, here the examples are:

It is contended, on the part of Great Britain, that the United States acquired and hold the Spanish title subject to the terms and conditions of the Nootka Sound convention

In the mean time, the United States were proceeding with the discoveries which served to complete and confirm the Spanish American title to the whole of the disputed territory.

Will the United States allow 20,000 of these bitter and irreconcilable foes [the Mormons] to take possession of any portion of the Pacific coast that is now or may hereafter by purchase become ours?

In the discussion on the address in the Chamber of deputies, the United States and Texas have likewise come in for a good deal of observation. [...] He observed that it was appeared to him, from the remarks in the President's message, that the U. States were dissatisfied in the Texas affair, …

The United States in annexing Texas had assumed the responsibility that devolved upon Texas antecedent to that event.

The unprejudiced of all parties, we doubt not, will freely admit that the United States have a clear right to the territory on which Gen. Taylor is stationed with his troops, and if so, the charge of the Gazetter, that the President has invaded Mexico, is utterly untrue.

Certain it is, that if Texas had not that right, then the United States had not;

He attempted to show that President Polk had trampled upon the constitution of his country — that Gen. Taylor, by his orders, had invaded Mexico — that his army was posted upon soil which did not belong to Texas, and over which neither the Republic or the United States had even exercised civil jurisdiction.

This newspaper has always maintained that neither England nor the United States is entitled to Oregon, and it seizes this occasion to recommend the French government to insist on the whole territory being declared neutral.

…it is now entirely proper to remind our readers that the United States has for a long series of years in terms mild and conciliatory, been endeavoring to obtain from Mexico a fair and just rumuneration for the "injuries and wrongs"; sustained by our citizens.

Against Mexico the United States had a black catalogue of robbery, insult and perfidy, anterior to the Texan controversy.

As we said before, we have those in our midst who declare that the United States is in the wrong.

Is he really willing to vote for resolutions recommending a vigorous prosecution of the war, and in the same breath to declare that it is an unjust war, and that the United States is in the wrong?

From what I can collect, I am of opinion that if the United States, at present, were to attempt to conquer Mexico, or even to annex any considerable portion of its territory, they would cause great dissatisfaction in France; …

This calculation is based somewhat upon the idea that the United States will order an expedition from the Missouri river upon the northern provinces.

The United States of America will never recede in the face of Monarchy; they must greet a kindred Republic across the Rio Grande, or advance and entrench themselves upon the ragged steeps and defiles of the Sierra Madre.

In other words, while the treaty of peace and commerce between Mexico and the United States is in full force, the United States, presuming on her strength and prosperity, and on our supposed imbecility and cowardice, attempts to make you the blind instrumnets of her unholy and mad ambition, and force you to appear as the hateful robbers of our dear homes, and the unprovoked violators of our dearest feelings as men and patriots.

Two swallows don't make much of a summer, but that's all for now.

I've done a bit more research, which I'll cover in a later post, along with an account of the ideas about animacy, agency and subjecthood pioneered by Michael Silverstein ( "Hierarchy of Features and Ergativity", in R.M.W. Dixon (ed.), Grammatical Categories in Australian Languages, 1976), and widely discussed since by linguists (e.g. Judith Aissen, "Markedness and Subject Choice in Optimality Theory", Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 1999) and psycholinguists (e.g. F. Ferreira, "Choice of Passive Voice is Affected by Verb Type and Animacy", Journal of Memory and Language, 1994; Willem Mak et al. "Animacy in processing relative clauses: The hikers that rocks crush", Journal of Memory and Language, 2006).

If I could get hold of the underlying texts, then rather than painfully reading all this stuff by hand, I could classify examples automatically on a large scale, and make more serious progress much more rapidly on a picture of this phrase's changes in number agreement and subjecthood — and their relationship — over time and space. That's just what I hope to do, if the archivists are kind.

[Update — more here, here, here.)



35 Comments

  1. Trond Engen said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    Ooh, I like it.

    Could the paucity in older newspaper articles be due to a lack of public interest in foreign policy, or a change in the way it was reported? If so, it might be a change in recorded rather than actual usage. How did the United States mention itself in official documents like diplomatic exchange in the early years?

    Can a similar development be traced for other political entities at the same time? If so, rather than American unity, it might reflect a change in the perception of statehood, or in the linguistic representation of statehood, from, say, "We, the king of Absinthia, hereby declare" to "The kingdom of Absinthia hereby declares".

    [(myl) Great questions. While I was researching "the United States", I tried looking at France and England, and I have the impression that they were were used more commonly in subject position in earlier texts. But I was using a different archive from the one cited here (the ProQuest American Periodicals collection), and so the numbers are not directly comparable.

    This also brings up the question of pronominal co-reference: is a given nation "they" or "she" or "he" or "it" or "we"? And there are lots of related questions as well: is the topic diplomacy, or war, or social commentary, or sport, or what?

    Again, with an accessible digital text corpus, you could get (reasonable proxies for) answers to such questions with a few lines of code and a few minutes of computer time. (That assumes search predicates with high recall and moderate precision, and decent taggers and parsers, and reasonable estimates of error rates and bias -- but all of those things are in hand. And if you wanted to be exact, semi-automatic analysis with human checking (of a suitable sample, at least) could be pretty efficient, given the right software. ]

  2. Jonathan Badger said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    How does the European Union refer to itself today (and not just in English)? The EU is a loose connection of independent states with a weak centralized authority, much like the United States was before the Civil War…

  3. Cecily said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    @ Jonathan Badger, by saying that the EU has a "weak centralized authority", you are in danger of opening up a very big debate, especially when the Lisbon Treaty is in the news so much!

  4. Posts about Michael Jackson as of October 6, 2009 » The Daily Parr said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    [...] Robin is kind of a bitch so she always seems like a person who shouldn’t be part of a couple. The United States as a subject – languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu 10/06/2009 The widely-watched PBS documentary The Civil War [...]

    [(myl) Um, that's Andrew Jackson, not Michael Jackson, though cross-document entity normalization can be difficult, I know. Still, the thought of Old Hickory doing a moonwalk is a poser.]

  5. Jonathan Badger said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    @Cecily
    Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the current limited central authority of the EU is either a good or bad thing, but I think it's clear that it has far less power than the federal authority of a typical nation state.

  6. WW said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    Ouch. Can't poetry be true in real life?

    [(myl) Yes, but subject to poetic license...]

  7. Geraint Jennings said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

    Interesting to compare with "England and Wales" in examples such as:

    "Indeed increasingly England and Wales is an attractive jurisdiction in which to qualify."

    "England and Wales is one of the few countries in Europe which historically, ever since the death penalty was abolished, has a mandatory life sentence for murder. "

    "England and Wales has 'worst drug problem in Europe'"

  8. Mark P said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

    I wonder if there would be any problems in comparing English usage in Britain and the US. I think it's fairly common in British English to use the plural when speaking about a company (corporation) or a sports team, while American English almost exclusively uses the singular. On the other hand, Geraint Jennings' examples don't seem to indicate the same type of usage when referring to countries.

  9. Nathan Myers said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    The phrase "these United States" seems still current, although it reads like an echo of something. What of, I can't seem to recall, and Google is no help.

    Ben Zimmer touched on this is in 2004: http://groups.google.com/group/alt.usage.english/msg/ffaa9399391376cf

  10. Ken Brown said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    I think the form "England and Wales is…" stresses that we are talking about one jurisdiction – or were from sometime in the 16th century to 1997. The government of Wales was completely subsumed in that of England.

    The same people might well have written "England and Scotland are…"

  11. Ed said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

    I agree that Foote's contention is poetically correct.

    One interesting change came with the states. The Articles of Confederation, obviously, but to a surprising extent the Constitution were drawn up with the idea that the thirteen colonies were little sovereign countries and were pooling their sovereignty. For example, the Senate ratifies treaties because any treaty obviously needed to the consent of most of the states, the states being kind of sovereign, to come into force and at the time the Senators were conceived as being sort of ambassadors of the state governments.

    It didn't work out that way. But the Constitution also provides for the creation of new states by Congress. The states created before the Civil War, except for Vermont and Maine (both created to resolve political disputes) covered large areas and eventually had sizeable populations. During the Civil War you had the rather cynical creation of Nevada, a desert area which barely met the population requirements, in order to provide three more electoral votes for Lincoln, and after that you started getting the other gerrymandered empty western states, ie two Dakotas.

    All those microstates that make the Senate so unrepresentative came in two batches (well, plus Vermont and Maine), small eastern seabord colonies chartered by Parliament, often for purely commercial reasons, and then the gerrymandered post civil war western states. The former got in because as sovereign entities creating the US, their borders could hardly be changed, the latter because with the Civil War people were already viewing the federal system as something to be gamed.

  12. Mr Punch said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

    I agree with Mark P's point about the difference between American and British usage; no American, I think, would treat General Motors as a plural. If this distinction existed in the 19th century, then any change in the verb form used (in America) with "the United States" might be attributable to a decline in the extent to which formal usage here followed British models.

  13. rpsms said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

    Like Mark P and Mr. Punch, my first thought is about the British/American difference in treatment of entities as plural. The Beatles said that we might think "the band are not quite right," but I would've said "the band is not quite right."

    I wouldn't go so far as assert this is the matter being discussed, but I am definately curious if the usage in the original post reflects a divergence from so-called English English over the course of the 19th century.

  14. Brad said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    I want to chime in as well to agree with the notion that there is a subset of English speakers who select verb plurals based on whether or not a collective noun is acting as a whole or as fragments, as in lines such as "the crowd are loving it" or "the crowd are going wild" as opposed to "the crowd is going wild".

    I'm just reluctant to call it British English after seeing those same conventions being used by various foriegn graduate student from India,to the point that I wonder at times whether I've stopped speaking American English…

  15. Anak said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

    Isn't this simply recasting plural country names as singular names, thus matching the vast norm of country's having a singular name? For instance, in Spanish, one no longer sees "los Estados Unidos" or "las Filipinas," rather, instead, "Estados Unidos" and "Filipinas" with both taking a singular verb. In 1894 José Martí wrote: "En una sola guerra…perdieron los Estados Unidos…más hombres," whereas now El País writes: "Estados Unidos deportó a 90.000 menores mexicanos."

  16. dr pepper said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    How do other countries with federal names do it? Mexico for instance.

  17. Jim said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

    "The civil war may have "made us an 'is'", but it doesn't seem to have brought about any abrupt change in the grammar of "the United States".

    Or a thorough-going one. You will still find ideologically motivated hold-outs. Like the Confederate flag car tag holders say "Forget? Hell!"

  18. Acilius said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

    @Jonathan Badger: I know a number of people who seem to envision the EU as a single living creature. Those who like this creature also know it as "the European project"; those who dislike it also know it as "Brussels".

    I suspect this is rather different from the view that citizens of the early USA took of their country. The impression I've picked up from my desultory reading in American political literature of the early Republic suggests an image of "the united States" as a geographical area within which various sovereigns held sway. The central government may have enjoyed some theoretical supremacy, but its minuscule scale meant that it was invisible in most people's lives and an afterthought in their political allegiances. So the US government of 1790 would have been less like today's EU than it would be like today's Council of Europe.

    I immediately concede that this is only an impression; I have not studied the period at all systematically, and would not defend this claim for a moment against anyone who had done so. Still, if by some chance I am right and there has been a shift in the last 233 years from an idea of the USA as a region which had some miscellaneous political institutions in common to an idea of it as a nation-state, then an analysis of the language that has described the USA in terms of "animacy, agency, and subjecthood," as well as of subject-verb agreement, might be extremely fruitful. I am certainly eager to see Mark's next post on the topic.

  19. chris said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

    Taking up Trond Engen's interesting question on the "linguistic representation of statehood", I think it's clear that "the United States" in its infancy was being treated very differently from the way that the older nation states of Europe had been for hundreds of years. A perusal of Shakespeare alone will indicate that it was not only very common to refer to the nation as an actor, but also to refer to the king of that nation himself as "England" or "France"; Shakespeare often has kings talking about "our brother France" etc.

    Then there is the practice of viewing the nation as a female personification – "France and her dominions" etc. I'm not sure if that appears anywhere in Shakespeare, but it was certainly commonplace by the end of the eighteenth century; Google Books even turns up instances from American authors and orators from the time of the early Republic. On the basis of Mark's findings, I'd be very surprised if the same Americans ever spoke of their United States in this way.

  20. Joe Fineman said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

    "These United States" is indeed an oddity; it seems to me to be modestly formal and always affectionate.

  21. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 10:04 pm

    From my 2005 post:

    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.

  22. Matt McIrvin said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

    "Life in These United States" is a longstanding Reader's Digest column. That is what the phrase "these United States" evokes for me.

  23. D.O. said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 1:41 am

    chris, check the last citation from the large roll in the original post.

  24. Cassie said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 3:48 am

    As a fluent speaker of German, the declination system makes it obvious what number the use of "US" is.

    "Ich wohne in den USA." (I live in the(pl) USA.) The same follows for a number of different languages that I've learned.

    Surprisingly, British English still uses the plural… not for any particular reason BEYOND simply grammatical. British English still says, "My bank are nice."

    I think it impossible to determine now what the historical relation of plural usage of collectives vs plural usage of "the United States".

    But I think it safe to say that American English has blown away a number of "strict grammatical usage" topics, unlike languages like German, where "Maedchen" (girl) is forced to be neuter because of the diminutive suffix "-chen". This is opposed to American English, where we would totally blow off strict grammatical gender, and go with "it's a female, so it's feminine gender."

    The only sort of "strict" grammatical gender that I've been able to figure that still stands in American English is the singular vs implicit dual. Words like "glasses" "pants" "scissors" and such… Anymore, "the United States" just doesn't fit the bill for "plural" usage/agreement… but then again, as I noted, all collectives have lost their plural-like gender in American English.

    I like the interesting increase of use of it in the subject position. :)

  25. Graeme said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 6:04 am

    I can only ever recall hearing 'the EU/European Union is'.
    It's euphonious, as 'union' sounds singular. It may also be that people think of the EU as out there, a body, not a country encompassing their identity. People don't think like public lawyers aware of the diff between a confederation and a federal nation.

    What is French usage? L'Etats Unis sont?

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 8:53 am

    The use of "France" and "England" as subjects (whether with singular or plural verbs) would not be as good a control for comparison to "the United States" as a country whose English name is morphologically plural. The obvious benchmarking candidate would seem to be the Netherlands, if one had a 19th-century corpus of American political/journalistic/etc. texts in which it (or should it be they?) came up often enough.

    The use of "Holland" as synecdoche for the larger entity (like "England" meaning in context "Britain" or "the United Kingdom") will unfortunately reduce the number of hits. However, as a bonus one could also see if the rate of use of singular verbs with "Netherlands" at some point diverged from the originally synonymous "Low Countries," which remained a geographical rather than political expression, as well as investigating singular/plural verb usage with the now archaic synonym "the United Provinces" which was reasonably common in 18th century America, where the Dutch, having at the time a federal and republican form of government, were thought of as something of a role model for the nascent United States.

  27. Adrian said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    Graeme: As one might expect, in British English "The EU are" is common enough. Try googling "what the EU are" for some examples.

    But discussing what Brits do does seem rather off-topic, so I expect several replies, including this one, may disappear :)

  28. BenHemmens said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    The EU refers to itself as the European Union, singular, but also common is "the communities", which I think means all the multilayered groups of parties to various treaties and cooperations. The EU is not only a treaty organization of nation states, but also harbours a lot of bottom-up networks of regions, cities, etc. and of course also has a directly elected parliament, representing a community of citizens that has not quite achieved the status of a single res publica, but might do, one day. Hence there is a diversity of attitudes as to what the "real" EU is: the intergovernmental EU or the many communities that often just bypass the national level.

  29. dwmacg said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

    @Mark P:

    "I think it's fairly common in British English to use the plural when speaking about a company (corporation) or a sports team, while American English almost exclusively uses the singular."

    It's a little more complicated with sports teams in the US. Most teams have a nickname that's plural in form, and when we refer to the team using the nickname we tend to use the plural form of the verb. So I'd say "Boston is going to win the World Series" but "The Red Sox are…".

    I don't think the choice of either form influences whether we think of the team as a single entity.

  30. Bob Ladd said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    I think the issue of British and American usage is largely irrelevant. For one thing, the phrase the United States is morphologically plural, which is not true of Mexico, Australia, England, France, or the European Union, all of which have been mentioned in this thread as points of comparison. (The suggestion to compare the United States with the Netherlands or the United Provinces is much more to the point.) For another thing, the meaning of plural verb agreement with collective subjects in British English seems to involve some kind of reference to actual people, even if they're faceless bureaucrats. So it's especially appropriate for sporting teams and committees, less so for countries considered as abstractions on the world stage. The same British English speaker who would say Scotland have failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup would be most unlikely to say Scotland have had a separate parliament since 1999. Similarly, British English speakers would normally use singular subjects with the EU, except perhaps those who delight in discussing perverse decisions made by actual people in Brussels. Here are two quotes from the top 100 ghits for the phrase the EU have (the other 98 hits did not involve the relevant construction):

    "It's no secret the EU have given Microsoft a hard time of late…"
    "The pressures Romania has placed upon herself are compounded by the conditions the EU have set for prospective entrants."

    Both somehow emphasise specific deliberate actions with negative consequences, rather than broader or more general properties of the EU as an entity; compare the top two quotes from a search for the EU has:

    "A list of 10 things the European Union has done for ordinary citizens in the 50 years of its existence."
    "Did you know that the EU has made Europe the world leader in using and making mobile phones, thanks to its common technical standards?"

  31. Rick S said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

    For me, singular United States usually denotes the same thing as metonomous Washington, which is naturally singular. It would be interesting to study whether US-as-singular is correlated over time with the pervasiveness of the federal government in people's minds. If so, perhaps we'd see an abrupt rise during the 1930s, when so many Depression-era domestic social programs were instituted.

    The dearth of subject usage prior to about 1840 might make any conclusions tenuous. On the other hand, that same dearth might be considered evidence that the federal government wasn't as pervasive a meme in earlier times–but I guess that could be begging the question.

  32. Two new reprintings » Hawthorne's Celestial Railroad said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

    [...] in the week, a link in Dan Cohen's twitter feed led me to a Language Log post that mentions the Pennsylvania Civil War Newspapers archive (whew!). I didn't know this [...]

  33. Paul Krugman on war & unity « Entitled to an Opinion said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 1:27 am

    [...] to in the singular before the Civil War. This story appears to have little support according to linguists. The U.S of course had a unified defense budget before the Civil War and didn't have Social [...]

  34. ‘These United States’: How Obama’s Vocal Tic Reveals a Polarized America – The Atlantic | Everyday News Update said,

    May 13, 2013 @ 9:27 am

    [...] truth is not quite so black and white, but the overall trend is clear. As the country moved through Reconstruction and the Progressive Era, the use of the [...]

  35. ‘These United States’: How Obama’s Vocal Tic Reveals a Polarized America | Barack Obama said,

    May 13, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

    [...] truth is not quite so black and white, but the overall trend is clear. As the country moved through Reconstruction and the Progressive Era, the use of the [...]

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