The United States: Singular or Plural

An article in the summer 2008 edition of the Green Bag entitled Supreme Court Usage and the Making of an ‘Is’ by Brooklyn Law School Professor Minor Myers is interesting reading on a fine point of grammar, namely whether the phrase “the United States” is a singular noun or a plural noun. Today, speakers and writers refer to the US in the singular sense rather than the plural. It may be that current usage is simply a reflection of a decline in grammatical standards. Otherwise one could speculate that contemorary usage is an unconscious move away from the federalist ideal of the Founders and an implicit endorsement of a unitary view of our government. Either way, the article is worth reading. Its abstract, posted this month on SSRN, says:

This survey examines use of the phrases “United States is” and “United States are” in opinions of the United States Supreme Court from 1790 to 1919. The familiar claim, popularized by Shelby Foote in the Ken Burns Civil War documentary, is that the Civil War marked a shift in usage from plural to singular. This survey demonstrates that in the Supreme Court this account of the timing of the change is not accurate. Although patterns of usage changed abruptly in the 1860s, justices continued to use the plural form through the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the plural usage was the predominant usage in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Only in the beginning of the twentieth century did the singular usage achieve preeminence and the plural usage disappear almost entirely.

Prof. Myers teaches Corporate Law: Advanced Topics, Property and writes on corporate law and local government law, with his most recent scholarship addressing the decisions of corporate special litigation committees. Prof. Myers scholarship includes: