20

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?

  • 1
    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
  • 3
    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
  • 1
    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? – user65920 Feb 14 '14 at 22:02
  • 1
    The NG Style Manual recommends: '... Verb agreement: If a place-name is plural in form but is considered as a single unit, use a singular verb: The United States is my home; the Netherlands was represented; the Golan Heights was taken by Israel in the Six Day War. Use a plural verb if the place-name is considered as having multiple units: the Rockies are good for climbing; the Hawaiian Islands attract many tourists.' But then you have to buy all the back-copies of NG to see what they consider 'place-names considered as having multiple units'. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 15 '17 at 9:07
  • @user65920 Shelby Foote made that point memorably well (see below) but it was an inflection point, not a new usage. – lly Jun 11 '18 at 0:28
17

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."

14

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.

  • 1
    Thank you for succinctly saying what I was trying to say. – jcolebrand Feb 6 '11 at 23:55
13

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

  • 1
    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
  • That posting concerns "committee", @lly, not (for example) team names and band names. – Colin Fine Jun 11 '18 at 19:03
  • That posting directly concerns committee and government (speaking directly to your point above) and clarifies that there is no 'British rule' regarding such words, just a more or less common variety of uses that vary situationally. – lly Jun 12 '18 at 1:46
2

Very late additional answer:

As others have noted, today "the United States of America" is just about always treated as singular.

However, you will occasionally hear someone refer to "these United States of America", or say "the United States are ...". Sometimes this is done for political reasons: a hot subject of debate in the US is what the relative power of the federal government versus the state governments should be, and some who believe in greater autonomy for state governments will deliberately say "these United States" to emphasize the idea that there are, or should be, multiple sovereign state governments. More often it's because people want to sound "old timey".

Readers Digest magazine used to have -- I'm not sure if they still do, I haven't seen a copy in a while -- but they used to have a feature with jokes about American life that was called, "Life in These United States".

1

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.

  • 13
    "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
0

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.

0

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.

  • 5
    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
  • Yeah, Shelby Foote was great and it's a very memorable point, but he was wrong if you put too fine a point on it. The USA was being treated as a singular by many people from the beginning and has continued to be used as a plural by some to the present day. The aftermath of the Civil War was the inflection point (PLL is wrong about that) but it's not a black-to-white switch that occurred. – lly Jun 11 '18 at 0:12

protected by RegDwigнt Feb 14 '14 at 22:43

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.