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A "Grammatical" Mishap?

October 28, 2011

Tags Philosophy and Methodology

Consider the following statements:

  • "The United States of America is the greatest nation on earth."

  • "The United States is the vanguard of the free world."

  • "America is a nation of oil-hungry fat cats."

As a grammarian, I have often pondered over the grammar of the first two statements in my composition classrooms. How has the "United States" obtained a power that defies grammatical logic? Namely, how has the "United States" soundly defeated that inimitable editorial caveat of a priori grammar — the dreaded rule of subject-verb agreement? If a student were to submit a research paper containing one of the first two sentences, ought I to count that sentence incorrect? After all, subject-verb agreement happens to be one of the gravest grammatical violations that a student can commit in an English department.

Is the United States, or are the United States?

If one were to consult nearly every textbook written on the subject of the United States after the Reconstruction era, one would certainly choose the former grammatical arrangement by default. Consensus seems to have it: the United States is. But what performs the action is? Is it the "United" or the "States"? Traditional logic seems to fly in the face of post–Civil War standard American English, because logic would not allow us to make the "Union" that hides in the shadows behind the adjective "United" perform the verb that the States are supposed to be performing of their own volition.1 Only "States" can perform an action when the noun phrase "United States" appears in the subject position. Clearly, the United States are, and they are by the rules of logic.

This problem in the application of subject-verb agreement may seem like a small quibble, but perhaps every issue at stake in the American political scene between the era of the Civil War and today's increasing mess of government intervention can be boiled down to this same grammatical quandary. Is the United States, or are the United States? The difference lies in where we can place the power of action. Do the states, as the representatives of the people, have that power, or does the unitary power of the federal government retain a monopoly on the power of action?

In 1903, one particularly perplexed grammarian of the states'-rights position tried to tackle this issue in a letter to Harper's Weekly. Alarmed by the change in grammar, which seemed to be making its way into the state machinery, he wrote,

It seems to be practically impossible to convince some persons of what ought to be self-evident, namely, that the text of the Constitution of the United States cannot be altered or amended in the slightest particular except by the machinery for emendation expressly provided in the text of the document itself. A paragraph is going the rounds of the press to the effect that the question whether the "United States" should be regarded as a plural or as a singular noun has been definitely settled by the Committee on the Revision of the Laws, which, it seems, in reviewing the Federal Statutes, has presumed to decide that the United States is.2

James Madison, the great architect of the Constitution, preferred are to that consolidated is precisely for the reason that the United States are not the singular United State.3 Indeed, the "United State" has the ring of something dark and ominous, perhaps something not unlike Mussolini's conception of the state as a unico mystico of man and government machinery: "No individuals or groups (political parties, cultural associations, economic unions, social classes) outside the State."4

If the United States are to be employed logically, then it behooves us to must make a decision of some pith and moment. Shall the United States continue on its path of unitary action, or shall they proceed in a logical manner and decentralize their verbal actions?

It would be easy to blame the socialists and labor unions for this grammatical mishap. I tend to think that we should blame the printers. The problem is obviously political, not grammatical. Even the American Bookmaker, which was fairly well set dead against the International Typographical Union, fell into this crass mire of verbal socialism in 1896, arguing that one ought to treat "the United States" as the unitary voice of the general will:

When dealing with foreign powers it is imperative to say "the United States is." It is absurd to say that fact must give way to the pedantic rules of grammar. We agree with the sentiment of the late Gov. O.P. Morton when he said that the idea that we are one people, undivided and indivisible, should be a plank in the platform of every party: that it should be taught in every school, academy and college; that it should be the central idea of our politics, and that every child should be inoculated with this idea. The United States, being a nation, should be regarded as a unit and used with the singular verb.5

Is it no coincidence that this unitary conception of the United States should so soon give way to increasing intervention of the United States with foreign affairs? Is it no coincidence that this same etatist conception was coincident with the increased intervention of the United States with the American marketplace during Reconstruction?

Something has happened. We do not know exactly when this "something" happened, but it happened sometime during Reconstruction. Prior to the Civil War, Alexis de Tocqueville even noted that "The United States of America do not afford either the first or the only instance of confederate States," thus preserving the plurality of America in its Jacksonian prime.6 The Union's victory in the War of Northern Aggression seems to have infected American English by bringing forth a new conception of its "new nation."

The rules of grammar are not just external linguistic formalisms. A priori grammar is something fixed. Singular bodies can only perform singular actions. Plural bodies can perform singular actions, but only if we simultaneously recognize that the individual bodies within those plural bodies are performing that same action. You and I might agree to engage in an exchange, but I cannot exchange your goods for you and keep your half of the trade. You and I might be thinking similar thoughts. We may thus think similar thoughts. But I cannot think your thoughts for you. The United States violate logic when they violates grammar — case in point.

Our anonymous state's-rights advocate from Harper's Weekly seems to agree that the constitutional revisions introduced during Reconstruction had a profound impact on the American tongue: "The amendments made to the Constitution during the reconstruction period practically transformed the United States from a confederation into a nation, and thus the noun which had previously been plural was made singular." In 1905, Fred Newton Scott commented on this alarming trend in A Brief English Grammar, noting that, "The noun United States once used almost invariably as a plural form, is now more often regarded as singular."7

In reply to our disgruntled states'-rights man, on April 18, 1903 the editors of Christian Work and the Evangelist wrote,

How the Union may have been regarded by the framers of the Constitution, whether carrying the singular or the plural form is one thing: how the people will use that phrase whether in the singular or the plural, is another and a very different matter.… There is no question, in our view, that the singular form for "the United States" conforms to the best and certainly to preponderating usage. Yes, the United States is certainly a very great nation: Esto perpetua!8

Thomas Hobbes was notoriously critical of the "democratical gentlemen" staffing Cromwell's crony Parliaments, and I find that I am similarly disdainful of such "democratical grammar." If we wish to lay the guilt for the United States' bad grammar on someone, perhaps we ought to lay it on the mob-rule mentality inherent in nationalism.

This "grammatical" mishap is a powerful slip of the tongue. Imagine the power of proper grammar when applied to the problem at hand. One could no longer treat the United States as a unitary power. Instead, one would have to implicitly acknowledge the principle of rule by consent among a confederation of states. The United States would become a "they," leaving the unitary "it" of the United State behind. Indeed, one would have trouble imagining this pluralistic "they" engaged in foreign affairs as a unitary body. One could not justify government intervention with the marketplace, since there would be no "it" (the state) to interfere with "them" (the states) without simultaneous recognition that some states were interfering in the affairs of others through the exercise of arbitrary rule. Responsibility for the wars that the United State has propagated abroad would fall on those responsible — the president and the legislators. Meanwhile, the judiciary would take a crippling blow to its pride, and judicial review might become subject to nullification.

For now, at least, my students will not be punished for this mistake. I will continue to give them the choice concerning just how subjects should agree with their actions, but I will continue to draw a line between the United States and the United State. Quite fittingly, the future and the past of the "United States" take no regard of this grammatical slip. The United States will not de facto proceed in the way that they have in the past, nor does the fact that the United States have proceeded down one road predetermine what they shall do in the present. What matters is the present, and if we hope to see some change, we may have to make a simple change in the way that we speak about the United States today. Changing the way we speak about this land may have a profound effect on the way that we think about it.

  • 1. Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1838. Democracy in America. Trans. Henry Reeve. New York: Scatcherd and Adams. 394.
  • 2. Anon. 1903. "The United States Plural or Singular." In Harper's Weekly. Ed. George Harvey. Vol. 47. 246.
  • 3. Madison, James. 1901. The Writings of James Madison: 1783–1787. Ed. Gaillard Hunt. Vol. 2. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 254, 359.
  • 4. Mussolini, Benito and Giovanni Gentile. [1935] 1937. The Doctrine of Fascism. Trans. anon. Alexandria, VA: World Future Fund.
  • 5. Foote, W.O. 1896. "Wrinkles for Readers." The American Bookmaker: A Journal of Technical Art and Information. Vol. 23. New York: Howard Lockwood & Co., Publishers. 105.
  • 6. Tocqueville 1838, 136.
  • 7. Scott, Fred Newton and Gertrude Buck. 1905. A Brief English Grammar. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company. 98.
  • 8. Anon. 1903. "Things of To-Day." The Christian Work and the Evangelist. Vol. 74. 559

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