Snowden's United States: singular or plural?

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Today Wikileaks posted a statement from Edward Snowden, time-stamped Monday July 1, 21:40 UTC. As originally posted, the first sentence of the fourth paragraph reads as follows:

For decades the United States of America have been one of the strongest defenders of the human right to seek asylum.

Screenshot (click to embiggen):

But mysteriously, at around 22:30 UTC (6:30 pm Eastern Time), the sentence was edited to read:

For decades the United States of America has been one of the strongest defenders of the human right to seek asylum.

Screenshot:


Shortly before the edit was made, Slate's Farhad Manjoo had drawn attention to the peculiarity of an American using a plural verb ("have been") with "the United States of America" as the subject, tweeting:

So what's going on? Has there been some sort of editorial mischief? If Snowden wrote the original, did he simply err in his verb choice, and an unseen hand made the change after Manjoo or others drew attention to it on social media? It's hard to know what's going on in the shadow world of Snowden and Wikileaks right now. But Manjoo is right that the original verb choice is distinctly unidiomatic for a native speaker of American English, and has been for the past century.

For more on how "the United States are" gave way to "the United States is," see my 2009 Word Routes column "The United States Is… Or Are?," which followed on my 2005 Language Log post, "Life in these, uh, this United States." Mark Liberman has also posted on the topic here and here. And finally, I give the shift from plural to singular "United States" as an example of what can be investigated on the new and improved Google Ngram Viewer in this article for the Atlantic.


Google Ngram search



41 Comments

  1. Philip Lawton said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

    What happened in 1888?!

  2. Jake Lsewhere said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

    I notice that when extending that Ngram search out to current(ish), the "are" usage bottomed out at 0.133% in 1992, but by 2008 has more than trippled to 0.452%. So someone out there is still using the phrase, and its gaining popularity, slowly.

    [(myl) I suspect that this is false -- essentially all of the "are" and "have" examples are from things of the form

    Average movie ticket prices in the United States are, in general, lower than other countries.
    People in the United States are still dying from the bubonic plague.
    The regions of the United States are geographic areas which include multiple states.

    Basmati rice exports from India to the United States have increased.
    Why Doesn't the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?
    Why did Britain and the United States have no desire to prevent WWII?

    So what you're looking at is a change in the relative frequency of a variety of sentence types that have nothing whatever to do with the interpretation of "the United States" as plural.]

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

    Actually, "stop me exercising" (instead of "stop me from exercising") doesn't sound all that American to me either. But people say all kinds of things that surprise me.

    [(myl) Your intuition seems to be sound in this case:

    (where PRO = me|you|her|him|them)
    Since COCA is 450 million words while BNC is only 100 million words, note also that the Brits are roughly ((33+13)/100)/((4+45)/450) = 4.2 times more focused on (writing and talking about) stopping people (from) doing things than the Americans are.]

  4. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 7:42 pm

    @Philip Lawton
    The answer to your question can be found here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1888
    Concerning the question of which specific event that took place in this year was most influential, some people might favor the foundation of the National Geographic Society (Jan 13), the opening of the Texas State Capitol building (Apr 21), or the official opening of the Washington Monument (Oct 9). However, I would prefer to lay emphasis on the fact that the Brighton Beach Hotel in Coney Island was moved 520 feet using six steam locomotives by civil engineer B. C. Miller to save it from ocean storms (Apr 3). That sort of thing doesn't happen without having a decisive effect on the way people think and talk about their country.

  5. Avery said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 8:06 pm

    Philip, if you are wondering how the USA went from a plurality to a singular, nothing happened in 1888, but something did happen over the period 1861-1865, and the language caught up eventually.

    [(myl) This is often asserted, in one form or another, but there does not seem to be any evidence for it. The change began in 1840 or so, and does not seem to have been accelerated to any measurable degree by the civil war.]

  6. Lazar said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: Yeah, my impression had always been that "stop [someone] [verb]ing" is a Britishism, because it's disallowed in my idiolect and I always seem to hear it from British people, but I've read online that some Americans do use it.

  7. Orin Hargraves said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 8:39 pm

    Are there any other available samples of writing than can be definitely attributed to Snowden? Why not run some authorship attribution and see what comes up.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

    Perhaps Snowden is a time-travelling secret agent of the Confederate States? But there's the separate difficulty that (I'm assuming) a 19th century writer who treated the U.S.A. as taking plural agreement would not have followed the "have been" with the very non-plural "one of the strongest etc." predicate.

  9. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 10:22 pm

    Are there any languages other than English in which "The United States" has become singular? Most European languages seem to treat it as plural.

  10. JS said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 10:25 pm

    I thought Snowden's preference in his statements for anarthrous "N.S.A." was idiosyncratic, but recent news reports suggest it's typical of employees of the agency… what this has to do with American-ness, I don't know.

  11. Alex Bollinger said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 1:47 am

    @Brewer: I looked up the French wikipedia article on the US and here are the first 2 sentences:

    Les États-Unis[...] sont une république constitutionnelle fédérale[....]

    Les États-Unis sont une union de cinquante États[....]

    I've used that construction in writing (in English) a few times and once had a reader say it was incorrect, a sentence like "These laws are a first step…." I'm sure I've used it orally. I have no idea whether it's grammatical, but it sounds perfectly fine to me and it's hard to think of a replacement other than something like "form," which doesn't always work ("These laws form a first step…").

  12. LDavidH said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 2:48 am

    @Daniel Trambaiolo : Swedish doesn't have singular/plural verbs, but if you use either "USA" or "Amerika", any articles and adjectives would be singular: *det stora Amerika* "the great/big America", "ett nytt USA* "a new USA".

    If you choose the long form *Förenta Staterna*, any articles/adjectives should be plural, since it's a plural phrase; however, I feel I might use the singular anyway: *ett nytt Förenta Staterna* – any Swedes on the forum please confirm or contradict, as I've lived abroad for 20 years….

  13. Jukka Kohonen said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 3:02 am

    @Daniel Trambaiolo – Finnish uses singular agreement almost exclusively, as in "Yhdysvallat vaatii…" ('the United States demands…'), although morphologically the word is clearly plural and inflects as plural ("Yhdysvalloissa" 'in the United States').

    In some older texts you can find plural agreement, e.g. in the 1925 encyclopedia "Pieni Tietosanakirja".

  14. Bob Massingbird said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 4:54 am

    While we are at it, could you perhaps analyze Sinification of Edward Snowden's name which is 斯諾登 (sī nuò dēng)? Perhaps explain meaning of each character and explain who decide which Sinification of non-Chinese name is the standard.

  15. V said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 5:36 am

    In Bulgarian, verbs that have to agree with Съединените щати (the United States) or САЩ are always in the plural. Same for all other parts of speech.

  16. V said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 5:44 am

    Although my intuition tells me singular agreement with САЩ might be borderline grammatical, but still sounds forced and would stand out.

  17. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 6:08 am

    Interesting comparisons. Does this reflect a general tendency in English to be slightly more flexible than most IE languages on violations of plural/singular agreement? (Cf. the common use of collective nouns with plural verb—"the government have decided…", etc.)

    One more data point, for what it's worth: the first sentence of the entry for "Geānedu Rīcu American" in the "Ænglisc" Wikipedia says that "Þā Geānedan Rīcu American is trēowiendlicu cynewīse þe mǣste ligþ in Norðamerican," following the modern pattern of "The United States is". A quick glance at the "Mōtung" page reveals there has been some debate among Ænglisc Wikipedians concerning the appropriate choice of noun endings in the title, but apparently nothing on the issue of whether Old English would say the United States "is" or "are".

  18. Terry Hunt said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 7:04 am

    Another possible influence on US/Non-US English singular/plural divergence: I recall that the Reader's Digest magazine used to (and may still) feature a regular column of amusing anecdotes titles "Life in these United States."

    If, as I suspect, Reader's Digest was the US publication most widely read outside the US, it may have disproportionally influenced we auslanders' choice of treatment.

  19. Joseph F Foster said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 7:04 am

    I always treat the United States as plural, getting are / were / have and never refer to them collectively with it. The USA are a federation of sovereign jurisdictions, not provinces created by and for the convenience of a federal bureaucracy.

  20. peter said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 7:59 am

    JS said (July 1, 2013 @ 10:25 pm):

    Re: the anarthrous "N.S.A."

    Employees of NSA, CIA, FBI and related US Government intelligence and investigative agencies tend not to use the definite article when referring to these agencies, in the same way that people in Washington tend to use the de-articled abbreviation "State" for the Department of State, for example.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 8:27 am

    Alex Bollinger: I feel sure that a clause with a copula connecting a singular phrase with a plural one can be grammatical. "The Hawaiian Islands are an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean." "Jane and John are the happiest couple I know." If you or your readers don't like such things, there are lots of ways to avoid them in many cases, such as "The passage of these laws is a first step…" But "these laws are a first step…" sounds fine to me.

  22. Drew Ward said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 9:08 am

    Your search string needs to be longer for accurate data:

    Before and after 1888 and on into today, plural agreement amongst NAE speakers tends to follow "THESE United States…" whereas singular agreement tends to follow "THE United States…" ('these/the' or some other explicitly written or implicitly contextual priming for discussing a collection of united separate states as a whole versus a single unified country (with no deference to whether that country's inclusive states be seen as internally independent entities or not).

    That said, there are far more glaringly obvious usage atypical to Americans of his background in this letter than this simple verb usage here.

  23. Robert Coren said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 9:51 am

    Treating "The United States" as a plural seems unidiomatic to me; I think it's because I think of the US as a single country. (I'm pretty sure I feel the same way about the plural-formed Netherlands, but I don't refer to that country as often, for some reason.)

    Does it make any sense to suspect that the preference for plural forms in some European languages has something to do with the fact that those languages have a singular/plural distinction for the definite article?

  24. Jobey said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 10:39 am

    Date at the bottom is also in European English, no?… "1st July 2013."

    I know plenty of Americans who affect these sorts of "Britishisms," to be sure.

  25. Drew Ward said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 11:00 am

    @Robert:

    It's not so much a syntactic issue as a semantic one.

    Even in British usage where plural agreement is near universal, there is a shift that takes place in which the actual plural subject is omitted yet understood whilst the stated 'subject' actually acts as a modifier of that omitted subject:

    The committee is made up of six academics.

    vs

    The committee (members) are voting next week.

  26. John said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 2:13 pm

    In Russian, verbs that have to agree with Соединенные Штаты Америки or США are always in the plural form, using the singular form of the verb would be completely ungrammatical.

  27. Rod Johnson said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

    Consistent with what peter says, I know government employees that speak of (anarthrous) POTUS, FLOTUS, SecDef, etc. I wonder if there's some kind of shibboleth or in-group signifier at work there. (I don't think they would say "what does President think?" or "we got a call from White House" though.)

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

    The unremarkable "The Hawaiian Islands are an archipelago . . ." is not really parallel to the very weird-to-my-ear "The United States of America are one of the strongest defenders," because the problem is that the latter predicate is irreducibly non-plural in a semantic/notional way as well as a morphological way. I'm not sure if the rather non-technical-sounding "collective noun" is or isn't the best term is for nouns like "archipelago" (or "couple" or "committee") which are singular in a sense but also by definition made up of a plurality of identifiable subcomponents, meaning they can easily be morphologically singular while on the other side of a copula from a morphologically plural NP denoting such a group of subcomponents.

  29. Drew Ward said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

    @J.W.: agreed.

    I've looked into this before and if I remember correctly, there is also a pattern where many of the uses of plural agreement for 'the united states' (amongst American speakers) being either totally lower case or having only 'States' capitalised as in 'the united States'.

    I would imagine that in cases of plural usage, you could take 'united' as an adjective describing the states and shift it postposition without any loss in meaning (the united states are… -> the states united are…). The same could not be done in an instance of singular agreement showing that such plural usages are using the plural accumulation of individual states as subject rather than the singular sole entity of their collective union.

  30. Nelida K. said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

    Grammatical treatment (subject-verb agreement) of "United States" in Spanish.
    According to RAE (Spanish Royal Academy), as stated in DRAE (the RAE's Dictionary): http://buscon.rae.es/dpd/?key=Estados%20
    Unidos&origen=REDPD, "Estados Unidos" (United States) is a shortened form of the official name of the country (Estados Unidos de América) and may be correctly written with or without an article ("Los" = "the"). In Spanish, the article agrees in number with the noun (unlike the English "the" which has no number marker). If the country is referred to with the (plural) article, then the verb will agree with the (plural) subject; if the country's name is stated without the article (simply "Estados Unidos"), the verb will be singular.
    In my neck of the woods (Southern Cone) Estados Unidos is more frequently stated without the article; ergo, followed by a singular verb.

  31. Taylor Brown said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 9:58 pm

    There is a chance that this is merely a typo, and not an interesting language anomaly or mistake. Maybe just an error of the eyes and fingers. Whether its a typo or a genuine language mistake, I think it's still left to stay which is more likely. Also whether or not this could have any real implications.

  32. Jean-Michel said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 11:54 pm

    While we are at it, could you perhaps analyze Sinification of Edward Snowden's name which is 斯諾登 (sī nuò dēng)? Perhaps explain meaning of each character and explain who decide which Sinification of non-Chinese name is the standard.

    It's a standard transcription based on the de facto official Xinhua transcription rules. The characters are being used purely for their phonetic value, and if my surname were "Snowden" it would be transcribed the same way. In fact, the character 斯 is primarily used in modern Chinese to transcribe foreign /s/ sounds and I suspect most Chinese don't actually know what it means (or meant).

  33. Meesher said,

    July 3, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

    Isn't it a dogwhistle for people with a states' rights, libertarian outlook? From someone who knows the Constitution well and is clearly concerned with overreach by the federal government, this doesn't strike me as a surprising choice at all.

  34. biagio said,

    July 3, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

    In Italian it's always "gli Stati Uniti", so the subject-verb agreement is inescapable.
    Weird as it may sound to a native English speaker, a sentence like "gli S.U. sono un grande paese" (the U.S. is a great country) is perfectly grammatical.

  35. hanmeng said,

    July 3, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

    I'm wondering if people are thinking less and less along the lines of what Joseph F Foster said. ("The USA are a federation of sovereign jurisdictions, not provinces created by and for the convenience of a federal bureaucracy.") In other words, it's the federal government that counts, rather than the states.

  36. AndrewS said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 7:40 am

    Following Meesher's point, I remember reading a number of essays that made a big deal politically about the distinction between "the United States" and "these United States".

    For myself, I'd always think of "the United States" as a singular entity, and if I wanted to talk about the states as individual states, I'd use some other term – eg I wouldn't say "Are the United States sufficiently economically diverse that it's useful to compare the history of the dollar to the euro?", but rather call them "the American States", or "the states of the USA". Maybe that's a consequence of me not being American and primarily thinking of the USA as a singular entity of the type "foreign country"

  37. Robert Coren said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 10:44 am

    @AndrewS:

    Well, I'm American, and apart from the word "foreign" that's exactly how I think about it.

    @biagio:

    The presence of the article "gli" forcing plural agreement is exactly the kind of thing I meant by my earlier comment.

  38. Errorr said,

    July 6, 2013 @ 12:25 am

    I just assumed it was a libertarian affectation among certain types.

  39. PJ said,

    July 6, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

    @ggreenwald: Edward Snowden confirmed to me today that the statement released by @Wikileaks was written exclusively by Snowden.

    https://twitter.com/ggreenwald/status/353620139805130752

  40. Martha said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 11:32 am

    I, too, think of the United States as a singular entity. Just like how although my state is divided into counties, I still think of it as one state.

    Following what hanmeng said, when I initially saw the graph, it seemed to me that it probably also indicated a change from people seeing the states as individual units joined together to seeing them as part of a whole.

  41. Bill Shirley said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 1:12 am

    If anyone was going to fiddle with language usage I'd expect it to be a computer scientist (if not a linguist). See: Jargon File.

    Whether the non-graduate Snowdon classifies is another question.

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