• When I am writing about the United States and refer to "the states", do I say:

"states began using their police powers"


"states began using its police powers"?

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    Are you referring to the country as a whole or are you referring to the individual states? The former would be The States began using its police powers; the latter would be The states began using their police powers. – choster Dec 9 '14 at 16:34
  • @choster It's interesting that you regard the plural-form noun [United] States as referencing a singular entity, and thus use singular agreement ('logical/notional agreement'; synesis). I wonder if you would go with the mirror-image form 'the jury were unable to agree amongst themselves', quite acceptable in the UK? – Edwin Ashworth Dec 10 '14 at 0:30
  • @EdwinAshworth In speaking of small groups, like a jury or a sports team, I used to use plural, but now tend to mix, to no one's satisfaction: [The University of] Oregon are taking the field now. Oregon is 5-1 in the regular season. Larger groups act singly to me, no matter how divided or diverse in real life. The Catholic Church is… The Democratic Party is… The United States is…. On the last, you can hardly blame us. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but especially so when the parts include New Jersey and Mississippi. – choster Dec 10 '14 at 1:01
  • @choster I agree: there seems to be no really satisfactory way of handling agreement for all cases. The Church is ... but the police are .... More than one man was in the hut. Data is being collected. // 'There is no general agreement on whether or not the phrase "one or more" should be taken to be singular or plural.' [Derek Jennings] – Edwin Ashworth Dec 10 '14 at 1:18
  • Even when referring to the singular country one could use the plural pronoun since a country is made up of a collection of individuals or a collection of leaders. Either singular or plural could be used. Just be consistent. – Octopus Dec 10 '14 at 1:29

If you want the United states used the police of the United States you would say, "The US began using its police powers." If you wanted each individual state, who collectively comprise the United States, used the police allotted to each state, you would say, "The states began using their police powers." In a formal writing you would not refer to the US as "The States."


If you are writing about the United States, and you refer to "the states," U.S. readers will assume that you are referring to the fifty entities that make up (most of) the United States. And since each state government has its own police powers, you would be correct in saying that "the states began using their police powers."

On the other hand, if you wanted to talk about the federal police powers of the United States as a whole, you would probably say, "the United States began using its police powers" or "the nation began using its police powers" or "the country began using its police powers." "The States" as a shortened form of "the United States" isn't especially frequently used in the United Sates except perhaps in the context of discussions of international travel or foreign affairs. "The U.S." is a much more common short form for "the United States" overall.

In any event, a person would be very unlikely to refer to "the States" (meaning "the United States") in a discussion of U.S. domestic affairs—particularly in a discussion where it had any likelihood of leading to confusion between "the States" and "the states."

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