E Pluribus Is

Published:July 7, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

Brumidi

This familiar bit of grammar history came from Shelby Foote during Ken Burns’s PBS documentary The Civil War (1990):

Before the war, it was said “the United States are.” Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And 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.”

One of my favorite blogs, Word Routes, now says (gasp!) that this isn’t true. Or at least not exactly.

In fact, the “United States is/are” debate raged for decades [following the Civil War] and was hardly settled by the surrender of the Confederacy. An 1895 column in the Indianapolis Journal defended the usage of Secretary of State Richard Olney, who preferred “the United States are.” The writer insisted that this was correct usage on grammatical grounds: “Thoroughly as one may believe in the idea of nationality, one cannot ignore the structural principles of the English language.” As late as 1909, Ambrose Bierce was clinging to this grammatical defense of “the United States” as plural. In his peevish compendium Write it Right, Bierce griped, “Grammar has not a speaking acquaintance with politics, and patriotic pride is not schoolmaster to syntax.”

This is one of things, though, that we want to be true because it so neatly sums up our collective understanding of the war. That understanding of the war, however, should be a product of history and not the other way around.

IMAGE: A detail from Apotheosis of Washington by Constantino Brumidi (1865)