Make Your Editor Cry: “These United States of America are” plural or “The United States of America is” singular?
BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front)
The TRUE and COMPLETE and CORRECT answer REALLY is that either can be correct—and even proper—depending upon context, even in contemporary writing.
That is the answer. You’re welcome and you don’t need to read another word.
Thomas Jefferson is credited as being the first person to come up with the name of our nation, which he used while drafting the Declaration of Independence. The final version starts with the date July 4, 1776 and the following statement: “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united [sic.] States of America.” The words “united [sic.] States of America” also appeared in the first draft of the Articles of Confederation (the precursor to the present US Constitution) on July 8, 1776, as it was submitted to Congress.
There are many shorthand nicknames for “United States of America” such as: United States, “the States”, US, USA, US of A, “stateside,” “the American Empire” (now archaic), America, and “Murca” among others.
“America” is probably both the most common and the weakest of these given that Canadians, Panamanians, and Brazilians could also rightly call themselves “Americans” since they reside in North America, Central America, and South America, but that’s fodder for another article. Of course, there are other nations on the American continents which are made up of united states. The nation which we call “Mexico” comes to mind because rightly it is called either “United Mexican States” or “United States of Mexico” based on the Spanish “Estados Unidos Mexicanos”.
Fair enough. But, when it comes to the proper article to apply to our nation, are we “These (or The) United States of America (plural) ” or “The United States of America (singular)” in verb use? Is it more proper and accurate to say something like “These (or The) United States are entering a new era” or “The United States is entering a new era” do you suppose? Is it these or the, are or is, plural or singular?
The answer should be easy. Let’s look at what the legal documents say. On September 9, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted a new name for the nation previously known as the “United Colonies.” The name they officially called our nation was and remains “United States of America” because the nation comprised of united states is found upon the North American continent. This moniker was intended to make our newborn nation unique because, at that time just as it is today, other territories and sovereign nations existed upon the American continents.
So the remaining question that is ever in doubt remains. Is it the case that if “these” United States of America “are” plural then we rightly verbalize “these United States are,” but logically, if “the” United States of America “is” singular, then we rightly verbalize “the United States is?”
First of all, from a grammatical perspective at least, it doesn’t really depend on the article. Either article the or these can indicate a plural.
Look at all the people.
Look at all these people.
The article the can also indicate a singular, however the articles this and that are specifically singular.
Look at the person.
Look at this person.
Look at that person.
It is never the case that “this United States of America is” or “that United States of America is,” which I believe is a valid test of whether our nation should be considered in the singular or plural. I can conclude, then, that since we are never singular this or that, but often plural these, then we must be plural. However, is it the case that our nation may be plural in construction but singular in use?
And I think you may be starting to see that this is a deeper question than we first see on the surface.
Just over 200 years ago, the notion of a free democratic republic made up of these “united States of America” as a form of government of the people, for the people, and by the people in its original conception was the most powerful radical and divinely inspired idea for governance of people in human history. During the earlier years of our republic, it was commonplace to say “the (or these) united States are,” indicating that it was very much a collection of separate local governments of-by-and-for the people. This usage emphasized the plural noun “States,” with the word “united” relegated adjective status, and thus our nation was considered plural.
Then, about a hundred years later and shortly after the cessation of hostilities during the war between the states on May 9, 1865, the singular gradually came to be used in preference to the plural, indicating that our then reunited nation was a singular entity. Emphasis shifted from the countable noun “States” to the uncountable “United” and that word also came to be capitalized more and more often. Common usage today, then, is “the United States is,” but this is still a deep question, and one whose answer is rooted in history, regional culture, and politics just as much as it is in mere grammar.
This transition to the singular was not instant. The US constitution refers to the nation in the plural specifically in section 1 of the thirteenth amendment, ratified by congress on December 6, 1865, which reads (emphasis mine): “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In short, the amendment which became law later the same year that the war ended refers to “the United States” as a plural entity by use of the plural their, thus placing the emphasis on the countable noun “States”.
Apparently, “these United States” is the go-to when you want to emphasize that our United States of America is a union of multiple plural (though countable) state governments or when discussing aspects of said union.
“The people of these United States are the rightful masters of both congresses and courts”
—former US President Abraham Lincoln
The requisite 38 of these 50 United States of America finally ratified the 27th amendment—more than 202 years after its original proposal in 1789— making it the last amendment to the US Constitution in 1992.
Also, it is clearly an acceptable usage when you are attempting to pander to a certain demographic of voters which group are known to think of our United States of America as a union of multiple plural (though countable) state governments.
“May God bless these United States”
—Barrack Obama, former US President
“May I have just a moment of your summer? I’m Hillary Clinton and I’m running for president of these United States,”
— Hillary Clinton, (then) US presidential candidate
But use “the United States is” when you want to emphasize that our “United States of America” is a singular (or uncountable) noun entity.
The United States is expected to pledge support for any NATO nations in the event of invasion by a hostile force.
The United States is going back to the moon.
The United States is taking the lead at this year’s summer Olympics.
You should know that certain “grammarists” strongly disagree with this answer despite the overwhelming evidence. They emphatically insist that “the United States” is (see what I did there?) always singular, but that is simply not true and their strident insistence may have more to do with their subjective cultural worldview and political persuasion than anything as agnostic to such things as rules of grammar.
So what is the answer?
The answer is that in contemporary use, we must conclude that either can be correct, depending upon context.
But there’s more to the story (full discloser: Rant begins now).
The late historian Shelby Foote wrote that before the war between the states, “… it was said ‘the United States are.’ 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.’“
With all due respect to Mr. Foote, the truth is not quite so black and white. There is a difference, and the difference is rather Orwellian in nature. To really understand it, one must 1) understand that the template of modern culture cannot be applied to the culture of previous generations, and 2) have a genuine interest in understanding history in the context of the culture of those previous generations.
In actual history, armed hostilities between the “rebellious colonies” and empirical mother England lasted from April 19, 1775 (when the famous shot heard around the world was fired at Lexington) and lasted until September 3, 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Besides one of the bloodiest wars up to that time in human history being fought, some interesting things happened between those milestone dates.
As nearly every US citizen knows (because fireworks and BBQ), the US declared independence on July 4, 1776 well over a year after the start of the war. Even later, the Continental Congress adopted the no longer used Articles of Confederation, known as the first constitution of the (plural) United States, on November 15, 1777, but the states did not ratify the Articles until much later on March 1, 1781 six years after the war began, just over seven months before Cornwallis would surrender to Washington at Yorktown in October of that year, and two years before the war’s eventual and official end in September or 1783. The original Constitution (sans amendments, and thus no Bill of Rights) was signed on September 17, 1787 which was just over five years after the signing of the Treaty of Paris.
Keep in mind that the original vision of those founding fathers was not to replace one form of tyrannical centralized government (England) with another (The District of Columbia). Nor was it to replace one form of tyrannical centralized government with a collection of potentially tyrannical “State” governments.
Their vision, as radical as it was and remains today, was to establish a government of the PEOPLE, for the PEOPLE and by the PEOPLE. It was a notion of codifying self-governance for an entire nation of PEOPLE wherein government was framed as a sometimes necessary evil and most times mere inconvenience to the PEOPLE.
If you ask most voting age adults residing in within the boundaries of our nation today to describe our system of government in a few words, the overwhelming majority would describe it as a “democracy.” That is not the case. It is so incorrect and inept a description, in fact, that it is nearly non sequitur, and therefore doesn’t even qualify as wrong. It might qualify as “utter nonsense.” Our system of government is not a democracy, nor was it ever intended to be one. At least, not on paper.
On paper, we are allegedly a “democratic republic,” and there is a tremendous and significant difference.
The nut of the argument goes back to the days of our founding.
At that time when the original US Constitution was signed, only 39 of the 55 delegates signed the new document. There were 2 delegates who were not present. Of those 14 remaining representatives who were present who abstained to sign on principle, perhaps the largest point of contention between Federalists, who advocated a strong central national government, and Anti-Federalists, who wanted the majority of power to remain with state and local governments, was the Constitution’s lack of a bill of rights that would place specific limits on centralized government power.
Federalists argued that the Constitution did not need a bill of rights, because the people and the states “automatically” as in, via extra-legal means, retained any powers not given to the federal government. But anti-Federalists staunchly maintained that a bill of rights was necessary to safeguard individual liberty.
Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams didn’t sign because they were not present and had no assigned proxies. Thomas Jefferson was representing the US in France and John Adams was doing the same in Great Britain at the time. Historians speculate that neither Adams nor Jefferson would have signed either, had they actually been present. Both veterans were well known for their advocacy to greatly limit Federal government power.
In response to pressure from Anti-Federalists for greater constitutional protection for individual liberties, James Madison originally authored 19 amendments which list specific prohibitions on governmental power in 1789. These were rejected at that first constitutional signing. Only 10 of them, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution which make up what is known as the Bill of Rights, were finally made law more than three years later on December 15, 1791. Many (most) consider the original constitution with the bill of rights amended to it in 1791 to be the actual first complete US Constitution.
SIDEBAR: The 13th amendment of those 19 first penned in 1789 passed 202 years later in 1992 and is now the 27th amendment to the US Constitution. In its entirety, it reads: “No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.” In other words, whenever they vote themselves a pay-raise, the next guy gets the raise. Funny how that only took two centuries to get approved.
The bill of rights puts specific limits on the central government. For example, in its entirety, the Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution reads (emphasis mine), “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The difference between a plural free republic of these “united States” and a singular democracy of the “United” states is actually a pretty big difference. It is a difference between a free republic, a collection of “these States” functioning as a free republic with local governments of, for, and by “the people” operating largely with autonomy per the bill of rights and with no top-down structure of directives and coercive control by a federal government, with a singular “federalized” structure of “United” states contained and controlled under a single federal government as in a (perhaps capricious?) democratic empire.
It is the difference between the original intended design of these “united States” having a constitutionally approved and codified immune system against possible corruption, overreach, or demagoguery at a federal level, and the current structure today in which the inoculation of “States” against sweeping directives handed down by a federal government is merely a placebo—with the federal government holding evidently unlimited veto power and powers of coercion leveraged to influence local government decisions.
The United States as a “democracy” is not understood to be an actual republic. In the modern filter the word “democracy” is Orwellian newspeak that makes this plural/singular distinction mostly unknown. The distinction is currently all but lost by means of the incremental destruction of public education over the last century by—perhaps not so coincidentally—the federal government. This is an education system where the founding fathers are described in the most favorable light as atheists (or heretical “weak deists”), drunkards, and slave owners, and in which we must neither pledge allegiance to our nation’s flag nor even allow prayer.
Like the original Articles of Confederation, most contemporary citizens seem to feel we just don’t need the Constitution any more. We see illegal acts performed at the federal level with apparent impunity today and shrug and sigh and say “oh, well.” Because while republics hold “their” citizens in esteem, an empire holds “its” subjects in disdain.
So if we are indeed a free Republic governed by the rule of law as one nation under God, and if it is true that our nations motto “in God we trust” reflects our nation’s trust in divine providence, then we are rightly “these United States of America” and we are a nation where individual freedom and liberty is preserved and our unalienable rights handed down by “our Creator” are paramount even to the whims of a tyrannical and oppressive regime. And if we are not, then we are already lost.
Write your heart.
Gregg Bridgeman is the Editor-in-Chief at Olivia Kimbrell Press. He is husband to best-selling Christian author Hallee Bridgeman and parent to three. He continues to proudly serve in the US Armed Forces and has done so in either an active or reserve capacity for more than twenty years as an airborne and air assault qualified paratrooper, earning a Bronze Star for his service. Most importantly, he was ordained in October of 2001 after surrendering his life to Christ decades earlier.