Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It Depends What the Meaning of "Is" Are

In two recent posts at The Language Log, Mark Liberman examines the oft-repeated contention that the Civil War dramatically changed the United States from a plural to a singular entity: before the War, the United States "were"; immediately after, the United States "was".

As examples of the ubiquity of this idea, Prof. Liberman quotes two worthy sources, the late Shelby Foote and Dimitri's favorite author, James McPherson. Here's Foote, from the Ken Burns Civil War documentary:
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."

And here is Prof. McPherson, from Battle Cry of Freedom:
Before 1861 the two words "United States" were rendered as a plural noun: "the United States are a republic." The war marked a transition of the United States to a singular noun.

The only problem, Prof. Liberman points out, is that the available evidence doesn't support the assertion.

The best available evidence appears to be a study by Minor Myers, entitled The Supreme Court and the Making of an “Is”. Here's the abstract:
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.

In other words, as Prof. Myers explains in his conclusion:
This survey demonstrates that the plural usage of “United States” did not fall into disuse on the Supreme Court until more than a generation after the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse. Whatever innumerable and profound changes the Civil War worked on the United States, it did not, grammatically speaking, make us an “is.”

H/T Eugene Volokh.

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