Forensic copy-editing

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… is needed, to figure out what happened here, in John Lahr's review of "John Guare's rollicking play 'A Free Man of Color'" (the New Yorker 11/29/2010 p. 88):

For the price of fifteen million dollars – more than two hundred million in today's money – the newly United States unexpectedly found itself with an additional eight hundred and twenty-eight thousand square miles of uncharted territory, which would eventually be divided among fourteen states.

Bob Ladd sent this in with the comment:

To me, "the newly United States" demands plural agreement.  Singular would be OK with "the new United States" or "the newly formed United States", but with "the newly United Stated" I really want "found themselves".  I'll bet that the writer was being clever with the phrase "the newly United States" but then either he or the copy editor couldn't bring themselves to use the plural agreement that that cleverness seemed to require.

[Before informing us of the old chestnut about the grammatical effects of the Civil War, you should read this, this, and this. If you want to discuss themselves vs. themself, that's OK too.]


  1. baylink said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 9:06 am

    Indeed. "The newly United States" was just a throwaway riff, and doesn't-to me-justify changing the traditional singularity of the proper noun, either.

  2. Daan said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    That is pretty clever…if it's what the author was trying to do. In fact, it's so clever I only got it after rereading the sentence very slowly. I thought what went wrong was that a sub had been trying to replace "the newly-founded United States" with something else because you've already got "found itself with" a bit later on.

  3. Brian said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 9:15 am

    Speaking of that chestnut, we can now add this to the evidence:

    [(myl) Unfortunately, that evidence is essentially worthless, because some large (and perhaps time-varying) percentage of the hits are things like "… the Senate of the United States is" and "the borders of the United States are". If we could examine a random sample of the hits, we could estimate the percentages and validate the evidence. But to do that, we'd need access to more of the corpus than just the n-gram time-functions.

    This is a good example of why the "culturomics" access is not very useful.]

  4. Matthew said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 9:21 am

    I'd think that the missing word was "created" … "the newly created United States" (or maybe "established").

  5. Joshua Fisher said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    How does one unexpectedly find oneself with something after paying for it?

  6. Kylopod said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    Plural uses of "United States" are not unheard of today, even from Americans. Here is one by Rep. Charles Rangel in 2004 (I found it through Google News):

    "I'm now convinced after listening to Mr. Foley and Mr. Powell that the United States are on the side of the opposition…."

    Considering that John Lahr was speaking of the United States in the context of its early history, I think the implied pluralization was intentional. Whether or not Lahr was aware the term was once plural (and I suspect he was), it was a stylistic choice designed to highlight the U.S.'s formation from a largely independent set of states.

    It's possible, though, that the choice wasn't conscious, but came simply from thinking of the U.S. in that historical context. That would be one explanation for why he switched to the singular "itself" later in the sentence.

    There's a tendency in American English to match collective nouns with singular verbs but plural pronouns (as in, "The jury is in their second day of deliberation"), and this habit is ingrained enough that it may carry over to attempted historical descriptions of the developing United States.

  7. bkd69 said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    @Baylink: the plural United States has been used as recently as the 60's, if not as late as the 70's, though my admittedly imperfect recollections of usage in the 70's seemed to me to be a dying artifact. Google the phrase "these United States" for specific examples.

  8. Megs said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 10:55 am

    The problem with this phrase is that cleverness: "the newly united states" calls for a plural, whereas "the newly established United States" calls for a singular. The play on words calls for…? It looks wrong whichever way you write it because they capitalized the words and made it say something other than what it sounded like.

  9. Klaus said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 11:27 am

    I think I rather managed to circumvent the limitations of the culturonomics search function for this one; as the input is case sensitive one can simply search for The United States is vs The United States are, which, barring the idiosyncrasies of ye olde tyme spellinge & Capitalisation Conventions should only appear at the beginning of sentences, where the United States could reasonably be expected to be the subject.
    The results seem to fit the poetic truth rather well:

  10. Professor Also Anonymous said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    Well-spotted, Klaus! To add to that evidence: the same trend is seen in "has/have" and "was/were":

  11. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    If a word was missing, it would be "united," as in "the newly [united] United States." But I think the omission was intentional, and perhaps too clever by half, given the havoc played with the verb agreement.

  12. Ed said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    i definitely was going for the "founded…found" copyedit analysis until i realized we were talking about post-Civil War times, not post-Revolutionary War times, so that just wouldn't make sense.

    i think it is supposed to be the United/united pun, which would work much better when spoken, because you could sort of do compromise prosody to allude to both senses. in print, it's absolutely a garden path when United States is capitalized. leaving it lowercase would have been better for flow, and some people certainly would have got the play on words.

    perhaps "the newly re-United States" would have got all of that together in a readable package.

  13. Dick Margulis said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    Forensic copyeditor at your service.

    The author almost assuredly wrote "the newly united states" or "the newly united States." However, we are talking about New Yorker style, here, which trumps author's intent almost every time. I suspect the author and the copyeditor had words over this one, perhaps before publication but most assuredly after.

    As any careful reader of the New Yorker knows, their house style calls for capitalizing a number of items that most people capitalized fifty years ago but that most style guides have in lowercase today. Fashions change, the the New Yorker's style guide is preserved in amber.

  14. baylink said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

    I'm not a regular NYer reader, Dick, but I would credit the writer; it's clearly intentional, and it's the sort of riff I might write myself.

    > It looks wrong whichever way you write it because they capitalized the words and made it say something other than what it sounded like.

    More proof it's an intentional riff, not bad copyediting or a house style issue. IMHO.

  15. fev said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    I don't think there's enough evidence to call it either way on the question of clever writing vs. tyrannical editing. I will note, though, that there's some smoke-and-mirror action in the New Yorker's fearsome reputation for editing and fact-checking. A promotional pamphlet the mag used to circulate includes an example in which the fact-checker changes a direct quote — meaning takes some words out and puts others in — because s/he disagrees with how a source characterized some band's genre. (Some flavor of metal vs. another, I think.)

  16. Dick Margulis said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    @baylink: But I am crediting the writer. I agree that it was a clever turn of phrase. I just don't think a writer that clever would have capped United. That's all I'm ascribing to the copyeditor.

  17. Bob Ladd said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

    @Megs, Stephen C. Carlson, Dick Margulis, and others: My original assumption when I sent this to Mark was that the newly United States was intended as a clever turn of phrase, so we agree about that. But what I was blaming the copy-editor for was the singular agreement later in the sentence (…found itself…), not the capitalization or some missing adjective. I actually think the wit is just as witty even if the phrase is capitalized as in the magazine – but the itself ruins the effect.

  18. Dick Margulis said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    @Bob Ladd: Agreed that the singular breaks the joke. But the editor had to make it singular after first deciding on capitalizing United States. As I said, I imagine the editor and writer have had words about this by now.

  19. Nelida said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

    I find myself agreeing with Bob Ladd. It may have been a witty attempt at wordplay "the newly united" (as in "recently joined") but then it is adjectival to "States" and the agreement would be begging for a plural verb. Irrespective of capitalization. Just saying.

  20. xyzzyva said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

    …an additional eight hundred and twenty-eight thousand square miles of uncharted territory, which would eventually be divided among fourteen states.

    This is my cue to pipe in:

    I am perpetually relieved that, when carving that territory into Sovereign States, we were spared the catastrophe of Dakotan domination, and the would-be hegemon was safely divided into dual departments.

  21. iching said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 5:35 am

    I agree with Bob Lad and several other commenters that the writer was being deliberately clever with the phrase "the newly United States". The meaning is "the newly united (or formed/founded/created/established) United States", but the "united" is dropped, leaving "United" to do double duty, a sort of pun or double entendre.

    However, I don't understand why Bob thinks the joke is weaker by using the singular "itself" rather than "themselves". The plural would be inaccurate in any case, if I am correct in reading the sentence as implying that the singular United States bought and paid for territory which was only later divided up between the individual States.

  22. Megs said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 11:20 am

    @Bob Ladd

    I do agree with you that the cleverness itself works, just it works a whole LOT better verbally than in print. In print, my point was the verb agreement is harder to figure because it combined terms that required different agreement. The capitization and the verb agreement combo requires the reader to go over it a second time to get it and why it seems so odd. Once the play on words is grasped, it's not so bad.

    But as a writer myself, one of the primary rules is NOT to make the reader have to go over it again to figure out why what you wrote looks wrong.

  23. Megs said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    "The capitalization and the verb agreement…"

    Yikes. I usually CAN spell.

  24. nick said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

    The sentence seemed fine to me on first reading, although perhaps knowing that the context is a review contributed to that. In my experience it's often in the more high-brow kind of review that one finds this kind of arch play with language.

    Also, speaking as a Briton, I note that Lahr has lived in England for a while, so could well have picked up our almost complete indifference to verbal agreement in such contexts ('The Government is proposing…' vs 'The Government are proposing…').

  25. Megs said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    "'The Government are proposing…'"

    :blinks in shock:

    I believe your theory. Note: I've never stepped foot outside of America.

  26. Peter said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    @Nick: British sentences like ‘the government are proposing…’ are far from “complete indifference to verbal agreement”! What’s going on is that for a wide class of syntactically singular but semantically plural nouns and noun phrases (“the government”, “Manchester United”, “my bank”, “a crowd of bystanders”), British English uses plural agreement where US English uses singular. Locus classicus (to the tune of ‘Deck the halls’):

    Man United are shortsighted,
    Never scored a goal in hiss-to-ree!

  27. Peter Taylor said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    @Peter, I think Nick's characterisation may have a lot going for it. BNC gives 757 hits for "the government is" vs 303 for "the government are", so there's far from unanimity on whether to use singular or plural agreement.

  28. David Walker said,

    January 11, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

    I thought it was pretty clear, and clever. The states were "newly united", so the phrase "the newly United States" gives a double meaning to "United".

    I did have to read it twice, and then I laughed appreciatively.

  29. David Walker said,

    January 11, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

    … and so I didn't miss the point of the post, "the [newly] United States found itself …" sounds OK to me.

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