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On the one side, the USA is just one country. Logic says it should be, then, singular, just like the United Kingdom is. Example:

The USA owns this domain.

On the other side, if I however expand "the USA" to "the United States of America", I'd tend towards using plural — the noun the verb agrees with, "States," is definitely plural. Example:

The United States of America own this domain. → The USA own this domain.

What form should I prefer?

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I'm interested in this answer and, in extension, a rule of thumb for every acronym out there. –  Ward Muylaert Feb 6 '11 at 22:01
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Logic is a very unhelpful guide to linguistic usage. Sometimes it gives you the right answer, but other times it doesn't so it is utterly unreliable. –  Colin Fine Feb 7 '11 at 12:56
    
An observation rather than an answer: I was struck by the fact that the United States became a singular entity (grammatically speaking) in the late 19th century. Could that have anything to do with the Civil War, which extinguished once and for all the notion that the individual states were independent, sovereign entities? –  Roger Holtzmann Feb 14 at 22:02
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6 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Short answer: in contemporary English, both USA and the long form United States of America are treated as singular nouns.

Long answer: Language Log has documented this in great detail. In the 18th and much of the 19th centuries United States was treated as plural, but in the latter half of the 19th century the singular usage became more common. Today, the singular usage is the only accepted usage, except for the case of a few fixed phrases. In fact, "in 1902 article in the Washington Post reported that Foster's work (which evidently was reprinted as a pamphlet) had persuaded the House of Representative's Committee on Revision of the Laws to rule that the United States should be treated as singular, not plural."

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The United States of America own this domain

To me this sounds a little bit awkward, as the United States of America is one entity. Actually, it's likely because the pluralism is buried in the middle of the term.

If you were to use simply The United States... I would accept either own or owns, depending on what you're trying to emphasize: the collection of states as one entity or the collection as a group of states.

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Thank you for succinctly saying what I was trying to say. –  jcolebrand Feb 6 '11 at 23:55
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Both "USA" and "The United States of America" are a single proper noun. They are names. I don't believe you can point to a word within a name to call the name a plural. Both names refer to a single entity. They should be followed by the singular form.

The exception is in some British English where singular nouns representing collectives (companies, teams, governments, etc.) are treated as plural. Some reading on that: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=877

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The exception in British English is not "some" (whether you mean varieties or speakers): the singular and plural are both used depending on how the collective is being viewed. In UK English (not US) we can say "The USA is" if for example we are thinking about geography but "The USA are" if we are thinking about what the government is/are doing. –  Colin Fine Feb 7 '11 at 12:55
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I think you chose whichever sounds best to you, as there's clearly not right or wrong. Style guides, for example those internally used by the BBC, suggest you pick one and stick with it, at least for that article/feature.

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"Do whatever you want" is a bad answer when there is one overwhelmingly preferred variant, which is in this case the singular. –  JSBձոգչ Feb 7 '11 at 4:58
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Agree with the form you're using; "the USA owns", "the United States of America own". The initialism doesn't need to be treated as if it were expanded.

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As the great Civil War historian Shelby Foote put it, the War "... made us into an 'is'". Before the War the States were referred to in the plural; afterwards, it was painfully clear that they form one entity: the UNITED States, hence, one polity. Of course, within the United States itself, one could refer to more than one State in the plural, as they retain some individuality (State constitutions, legislatures etc.) within the national - and singular - whole.

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This is a nice political point; but as a statement about English usage, it’s rather inaccurate — looking in historical corpuses at how frequently ‘USA’ was treated as singular vs. plural, there was no particular change around the time of the civil war. Language Log went into this quite thoroughly at some point, iirc… –  PLL Feb 7 '11 at 4:07
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protected by RegDwigнt Feb 14 at 22:43

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