When did the Supreme Court make us an 'is'?

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In my recent post "The United States as a subject", I discussed the often-repeated story that the American Civil War turned "the United States are" into "the United States is", and observed that "no one seems ever to have checked, at least not very thoroughly". It's a good thing that I said "seems", since Minor Myers has gently pointed me to his article "Supreme Court Usage and the Making of an 'Is'", 11 Green Bag 2d 457, August 2008, in which he checks this very point, very carefully, in opinions of the United States Supreme Court from 1790 to 1919.

And the answer? In the case of U.S. Supreme Court opinions, we apparently became an 'is' somewhat gradually, between 1840 and 1910. And the effect of the Civil War (or at least its immediate aftermath) was apparently to retard the change, not to accelerate it.

After citing the Shelby Foote "It made us an 'is'" quote that I also gave, Myers adds some evidence of the ubiquity of this view. Thus he quotes James McPherson, Battle cry of freedom: The Civil War era, 1988:

Before 1861 the two words ‘United States’ were rendered as a plural noun: ‘the United States are a republic.’ The war marked a transition of the United States to a singular noun.

And also William Michael Treanor, "Taking Text Too Serously: Modern Textualism, Original meaning, and the Case of Amar's Bill of Rights", Michigan Law Review, vol. 106, 487-544 (Dec. 2007):

‘United States’ was often matched with a plural verb in 1787 and consistently matched with a singular verb after the Civil War.

In order to evaluate these claims in the case of Supreme Court opinions, Myers used the following method:

For each decade in the survey period, I ran word searches for “United States is” and “United States are” through the Westlaw Supreme Court database. To eliminate false positives, I reviewed the search results to identify opinions where (1) “United States” was a subject and (2) the associated verb was “is” (or “are,” depending on the search). To isolate only usage choices made by the author, anything appearing only in a quotation from a statute, a court rule, or another case was ignored, as was anything in West headnotes. Each opinion in a particular case was treated as a separate work, and thus a case could have more than one entry if more than one justice wrote or if a justice used both “is” and “are” in the same opinion. I collected data on usage in the opinions of justices, the arguments of counsel before the court, and supplementary material prepared by the reporter of decisions (e.g., a syllabus). Except where noted, the focus of the presentation here is on usage in opinions of the justices; data on usage in other portions of the case reports appear in the Appendix.

Here are his basic results in graphical form (click for a larger version):

His conclusion:

The Civil War does not appear to have altered the Supreme Court’s usage in a fashion as dramatic as Foote and McPherson have suggested. In the 1860s, the usage pattern shifts away from “are” and toward “is,” and it is during that decade that usage of “is” first predominates. But the change is not wholesale – “are” and “is” were used roughly equally in the 1860s. In the following decade, Court usage reverted back to antebellum patterns. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, plural usage predominated in Supreme Court opinions, though by slowly declining margins.

Usage was quite clearly unsettled in the latter part of the nineteenth century. One of the most striking demonstrations of this is Justice Samuel F. Miller’s majority opinion in United States v. Lee. Justice Miller managed to compose a sentence with both usages:

“[T]he doctrine [of sovereign immunity], if not absolutely limited to cases in which the United States are made defendants by name, is not permitted to interfere with the judicial enforcement of the established rights of plaintiffs when the United States is not a defendant or a necessary party to the suit.”

He observes that some of the obvious theories about sources of variation don't pan out, at least in this data set:

Geography does not help explain this pattern. Looking at the geographic latitudes of the justices’ residences prior to appointment, there is no meaningful difference between the mean latitude for the exclusive “are” users and the mean for those who dabbled in “is.”

Politics doesn't seem to help either, at least in the obvious way:

To see whether the Civil War might have influenced usage in a different way, I isolated the usage by justices who were appointed by President Abraham Lincoln. In fact, during the period when at least one justice appointed by Lincoln was on the Court, the five Lincoln-appointed justices used “are” slightly more frequently than did the other justices.

Here's his appendix, giving the counts in different sorts of SCOTUS material:

It would be interesting to look at some other features as well — number agreement with verbs other than is/are; (which would help to increase the rather small counts from this source); the distribution of pronouns co-referential with the United States (19th-century newspapers give us examples of they, it, she, and we); what fraction of "United States" instances are subjects as opposed to modifiers or PP complements or whatever; how usage is affected by the topic, e.g. relations of the federal government to foreign governments, to the states separately, to individual citizens or companies, etc.

West's materials are definitely not accessible for automatic processing of such questions; but most if not all of the same documents are available on the web, I think, so this might be a good testing ground for the idea of automatic or semi-automatic analysis of this type.

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15 Comments »

  1. Mark P said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    It's interesting to speculate that the Civil War might actually have slowed the language change from plural to singular because of the obvious division between the northern and southern states. At that time there really was no singular "United States." That perception must have persisted at least through Reconstruction, and I'm afraid it hasn't entirely disappeared in some quarters.

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

    Maybe this is in the full article (which I can't figure out how to access from the link to the abstract but maybe that's my technical incompetence), but it would be interesting to know how much of the long term change was the result of personnel turnover on the Court, with newly-appointed Justices having a different usage pattern than their predecessors, versus a given Justice X's own usage shifting with the times over the course of a multi-decade career writing opinions.

  3. Cheryl Thornett said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

    When I heard this at school some decades ago, the idea was put as 'some people say' and I think it was clear that we should understand it as a metaphor, rather than as an actual change in preferred wording. It was not attributed to the Supreme Court or any other official body.

    [(myl) One thing that's interesting about this case is to watch the process by which a metaphor becomes an empirical hypothesis and then an established fact, without any actual facts being engaged in the process.

    But the most interesting thing, I think, is to figure out what actually happened, and why. Not metaphorically, but in the real historical record.]

  4. Graeme said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

    In truth, the US weren't/wasn't during the Civil War, for that's the nature of such a conflict.

  5. Tim said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

    As a historian, I agree that the "are to is" transition needs more empirical investigation. But I have to quibble with the assertion that historians consider it an "established fact" that the Civil War caused a linguistic shift from "are" to "is" (notwithstanding an infelicitous statements in a Ken Burns documentary).

    Myers' findings are interesting, but he mischaracterizes McPherson's claims. If you look at the relevant passage (available on Google books) you will notice, first, that Myers misquotes McPherson, leaving out an important qualifying "generally" (p. 859 "Before 1861 the two words ‘United States’ were generally rendered as a plural noun…"). Second, McPherson asserts "The war marked a transition," which is very different from saying that the war caused the transition (as Myers intimates). In fact, McPherson explicitly states that "These results signified a broader transformation of American society and polity punctuated if not alone achieved by the war." Finally the word "transition" suggests a process of change, not a consummated change.

    Myers' findings in figure one conform to the general narrative of the development of American nationalism (1840s as the beginning; Civil War as turning point; the Spanish-American War as consummation).

    McPherson (like most historians), shuns unicausal explanations, unilinear development, and instantaneous transformations. The Civil War was a symbolic tipping point in a slow evolution from the US as a union of states to the US as a modern nation. This is pretty well established through other bodies of evidence; the linguistic are/is anecdote is a nifty (perhaps sloppy) shorthand used to represent the change. It is not a serious argument used to prove the change.

  6. Cheryl Thornett said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    Certainly there is a linguistic question here as well as a political one.

    Companyname is orCompanyname are liable? My family is coming to stay or my family are coming to stay? And are there circumstances other than dialect and variety that make one preferable to the other?

  7. language hat said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    Myers misquotes McPherson, leaving out an important qualifying "generally" (p. 859 "Before 1861 the two words ‘United States’ were generally rendered as a plural noun…").

    While you make good points otherwise, this strikes me as irrelevant. No one could possibly suppose every single person in the country used it as a plural every single time they spoke or wrote, so omitting the "generally" is simply leaving out padding. The import of the sentence is not changed.

  8. mike said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    What Cheryl said. There's a difference in US/UK English as to the pluralness of nouns that represent collectives. Does the are->is shift for these United States simply reflect a general change in US English toward singularizing of such nouns? Not saying it is, yust vundrin.

  9. E W Gilman said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    Just angling for a plug. MWDEU discussed this point and reached much the same conclusion as Mr Myers on our much sparser evidence. I think our conclusion that people who grew up using the plural continued to use it is probably pretty valid.

  10. Bill Walderman said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

    One possibility that needs to be considered is that the register of both written and spoken language used in the Supreme Court language (including not only opinions but also briefs submitted by parties to litigation, oral arguments, etc.) may tend to be more formal than that used in many other contexts. I wonder whether the Supreme Court corpus on which Myers' analysis rests lagged behind less formal speech and writing in admitting the use of a singular verb with an ostensibly plural noun phrase.

    [(myl) John Foster's 1901 NYT article (cited in the earlier post) asserts that the Supremes lagged more ordinary sources of text, and he seems to have checked.]

  11. Tim said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 9:40 am

    …so omitting the "generally" is simply leaving out padding. The import of the sentence is not changed.

    Whether one considers it "padding" or not, it is a misquotation (which historians, at least, consider to be a big no-no). I'd also argue that it changes the tenor of the discussion, leading readers to misinterpret McPherson's subsequent statements.

    [(myl) Yes, I agree that this is a significant mistake, and should be fixed in the paper -- assuming that "generally" was in McPherson's text in the 1988 edition, which is what was quoted. We don't know yet whether that is true -- I'm traveling and not near a library where I can go check. As far as I can tell, though, the result of this change is to make McPherson wrong in a soft and fuzzy way rather than in a crisp and definite way.]

  12. The United States Are An It: How Big Government Nationalized Grammar « The View From LL2 said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    [...] The United States Are An It: How Big Government Nationalized Grammar October 10, 2009 Via Language Log, here's a neat article on how the U.S. went from a plural to a singular: Supreme Court Usage [...]

  13. Minor Myers said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

    My quotation of McPherson is wrong, as others have noted, and I'm embarrassed at my error. Thank you to the Language Log commenters for catching it. McPherson in both the 1988 and 2003 editions indeed says "generally rendered as a plural noun." (Both editions are available for search on Google Books). My quotation of his book left out the word "generally." I will update the version of the paper available on SSRN with the accurate quotation, but unfortunately the version with the misquotation has already been published.

  14. BenHemmens said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 6:10 am

    I have the impression that in most other languages, the US are an "are", not a "it".

  15. Dave Troy said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 6:22 am

    Good post and discussion. The specific timings of the transition aren't what's important here, but rather that the transition ultimately did occur.

    If you look to science, when state changes occur, there is a period of no obvious change in temperature (think melting, boiling, sublimation) until all of the matter has absorbed sufficient energy.

    The war undoubtedly prompted sensitivity and consciousness around this topic for many years, until the old ways gave way to the new.

    The transition from rural to urban, from agrarian to mercantile, is the change that lay beneath the Civil War. That change continues today.

    You might enjoy these two links:

    United States Is vs. Are in Google Books: http://bit.ly/IQz9mb

    My post on population density and voting behaviors: http://bit.ly/1biXNBB

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