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I've read the following sentence on Facebook tonight:

I may have inadvertently convinced a co-worker to vote for Trump with the statement, "Can you imagine his state-of-the-unions?"

Is it State-of-the-Unions or States-of-the-Union?

Far better would be State-of-the-Union addresses, but now my curiosity is piqued.

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    I like that you are actually using a noun turned into an adjective and then turned back into a noun. – Hutch Sep 29 '16 at 20:28
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    "It" is state-of-the-unions, because that's what they said. What's the question? That whether you can omit the word addresses, and instead pluralize union or state? If you take Wiki as a precedent then the answer is no: State of the Union. – Mazura Sep 30 '16 at 2:27
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    It's a name, a title, derived from a clause in the U.S. Constitution. 'Man of La Mancha' (a title) was originally a teleplay, but there have been many productions of it. Would we say 'Men of La Mancha'? – user2338816 Sep 30 '16 at 6:21
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    @JoeBlow not sure why you think this is a trivial question, it's clearly not at all trivial, and something that clearly has a lot of disagreement among native speakers is hardly ELL appropriate. – barbecue Sep 30 '16 at 16:05
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is an opinion-based question; the OP has ruled out the correct answer (State of the Union addresses) and the only answers that are left are opinion based. – ab2 Oct 1 '16 at 17:14

10 Answers 10

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I would argue that the 'State of the Union' is an address to the nation, and therefore the plural of State of the Union Address is 'State of the Union Addresses' since "State of the Union" is modifying the word Address.

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    I agree, but if OP wants to use one of the two, I think saying "...State of the Union's" would be readily recognised by most American English speakers, as you're kind of just contracting "Addresses" with "Union", leaving "addresses" as understood. – BruceWayne Sep 29 '16 at 18:44
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    I'm not sure how useful this is as an answer, given the original post already acknowledges "far better would be State-of-the-Union addresses." The question is explicitly asking about "State-of-the-Unions" vs. "States-of-the-Union" without any following words: can you say anything about that issue? – herisson Sep 29 '16 at 21:30
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    @suməlic - Neither of those are a 'thing'. It's called a State of the Union address or speech. The issue here is the clickbait title. – Mazura Sep 30 '16 at 1:32
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    The logic is flimsy. 'Microwave oven' is often shortened to 'microwave', and the plural 'microwaves' is widely used. A good answer would look at actual usage rather than merely give opinion. Not that I wouldn't use the obviously correct 'State of the Union Addresses' rather than do the tedious research needed. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 30 '16 at 8:44
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    -1: The question has already noted that "state of the union addresses" would be preferable, and is asking how to pluralize "state of the union" without an additional noun. – phoog Sep 30 '16 at 20:24
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This is complicated, because "State-of-the-Union" is being used as a noun when it isn't really one.

  • If "State-of-the" was being used to describe a Union, then Union would be pluralised to Unions
  • If "of-the-Union" was being used to describe a State, then State would be pluralised to States.
  • But "State-of-the-Union" is an abbreviation of "State-of-the-Union Address". Within the full title, "State-of-the-Union" is therefore an adjective.

I would personally suggest that "State-of-the-Union" is a single pseudo-noun, which should hence have the pluralising "s" at the end.

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    I don't think "State-of-the" could be treated as a descriptor... Trying to think of an example. I guess if you have a "state-of-the-union address" and a "friends-of-the-union address", you might say something like "Hand me the state-of-the address", but that situation goes beyond "contrived". – Tin Wizard Sep 29 '16 at 18:30
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    It is astoundingly non-complicated. The fact that you cannot pluralize 'State of the Union' - as such - is utterly unsurprising - there are many nounal phrases in English which you simply cannot pluralize. – Fattie Sep 30 '16 at 15:21
  • @JoeBlow, but if you have given your second State of the Union, then you've given two State of the Unions. It may be awkward, and it may be poor style, but it's not impossible. The assertion that "State-of-the-Union" isn't a noun is false. Why else would you hyphenate it? The hyphens show that the four words taken together denote one thing (being a particular category of address). Something that denotes a thing is a noun. – phoog Sep 30 '16 at 20:27
  • However, there are any number of nouns or noun phrases that are problematic to pluralize. It's just not an interesting question. It's completely commonplace in English that you can use words/phrases in almost any way (you can easily use "State of the Union", as such, as a verb for goodness sake). It's just totally unsurprising / commonplace that in many situations there's no good plural. The only real world answer is "state of the union speeches". You could trivially start typing 100 such phrases. – Fattie Sep 30 '16 at 22:52
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"State-of-the-unions" is entirely appropriate in informal spoken English. The context you give is quoted speech, so I would say it is fine. In fact, the utterance would have less force if any other option were chosen.

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    Yup. It's entirely appropriate, and the best choice, in informal written English as well. – Jason Orendorff Sep 29 '16 at 18:54
  • Informal spoken English? – Ram Pillai Mar 29 at 14:39
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You're looking for "States of the Union".

"State of the Unions" would imply that Trump is giving one speech about many different Unions.

This rule also applies for mother-in-law (=> mothers-in-law) and commander in chief (=> commanders in chief). It's explained here:

Words that are pluralized in the middle?

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    If you're talking about the States of the United States then States of the Union is fine. But if you're talking about speeches, then you have to say "State of the Union Addresses" in full. – curiousdannii Sep 29 '16 at 7:56
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    @DavidRicherby I admit that I didn't bother looking because I never thought anyone would have used it. It is a truly terrible phrase ;) – curiousdannii Sep 29 '16 at 10:44
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    It's not Obama's 'state', he's just describing the preexisting state. The noun 'State of the Union' only makes sense it it is short for 'SotU address'. So the 's' should be at the end. You're talking like 2 SofU addresses means there is 2 literal states, when in fact there has actually been 2 addresses. – lukeuser Sep 29 '16 at 17:53
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    @curiousdannii: "If you're talking about the States of the United States then States of the Union is fine" It's state as in condition, not state as in um state. So you can't put "states" there just because there are multiple states in the States... – Lightness Races in Orbit Sep 29 '16 at 18:14
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    "State of the Union" addresses talk about the state (i.e. current situation) of the Union at that point in time. When multiple addresses are given over a series of years, the Union can be considered to be in different states for each address, therefore you end up with "States of the Union" – Doktor J Sep 29 '16 at 20:53
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The key here lies in the fact that "state of the union" isn't just a phrase, it's a title - State of the Union - which is understood to be the name of a speech.

If we have multiple of those things, we don't want to pluralise the states, nor to we want to pluralise the unions: we want to pluralise the entire title - State of the Unions.

The fact that this happens to be the same as if we were trying to pluralise "unions" (e.g. in the sense that we were referring to a single address about multiple unions) is just an unfortunate side-effect. It's the context, however, that removes the ambiguity between "State of the Union(s)" and "State of the Union(s)".

"State of the Unions" implicitly refers to "State of the Union Addresses," in the same way that "Harry Potters" refers to "Harry Potter books," not a single book about multiple wizards of the same name (which would be very confusing).

Consider another example: "The Fast and the Furiouses." If "The Fast and the Furious" weren't a title, understood in-context to refer to a movie, you'd complain that "Furiouses" doesn't make sense. Of course, in reality, you wouldn't likely complain about this pluralisation (except possibly to suggest including the word 'movies'!)

Try writing each variation out in full, parenthesizing the omitted word (addresses) and then contracting to the shorthand from there.

  • States of the Union (address) - States of the Union - one address about multiple states of a single union.
  • State of the Unions (address) - State of the Unions - one address about the state of multiple unions.
  • States of the Union (address)es - State of the Unions - multiple addresses about the state of a single union.

The confusion comes from the fact that these are three distinct concepts, two of which just happen to share a shorthand. The fact that there are "two potential nouns to pluralise" is a red herring - you want to pluralise the whole title.

Of course, it would be easier to avoid ambiguity altogether and simply say "State of the Union addresses."

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  • Why rely on context instead of proper formatting/punctuation? – Mazura Sep 30 '16 at 22:25
  • @Mazura because there is no formatting or punctuation to differentiate here (nor should there be) and the context makes the meaning very clear? – Ant P Oct 1 '16 at 9:18
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    For pluralizing titles, I think of 'Men of La Mancha' when discussing its various productions, and that simply doesn't work for me. – user2338816 Oct 1 '16 at 10:28
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This is a false dilemma. They're both incorrect.

  • "States of the Union" means that there are multiple states.
  • "State of the Unions" means that there are multiple unions.

The intent is to express that there are multiple addresses.

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    According to this logic, it should be impossible to pluralize "forget-me-not," since both "forgets" and "nots" are incorrect. To express the idea of multiple flowers, we would have to say "forget-me-not flowers." But we don't actually have to do this. In other words, adding "s" to the end of a compound word doesn't always indicate that the last element is plural. It might just indicate that the overall compound is plural. – herisson Sep 30 '16 at 1:48
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    I agree that people say things like "State of the Unions" and there's no ambiguity about what they mean. I'm not sure I buy your example though. The hyphens are doing some work here. – user7065 Sep 30 '16 at 4:03
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    For each Address, it is the same Union. But the State at the time of each Address is different. Therefore, multiple States, one Union. States of the Union. I agree with everyone else, it's less confusing if you include "Address(es)". – Adeptus Sep 30 '16 at 5:43
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    @Adeptus - But the speech itself is not a state; it is a speech about the current state. – AndyT Sep 30 '16 at 8:13
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    This is an answer based on opinion and false logic. If 'State of the Union' is seen as constituting a compound proper noun, regardless of whether it originated as a modifier or not, adding an s to the final word to form the plural is standard. 'There were three White Bull's in the town, two Red Lion's, two Duke of Wellington's and two Lord Nelson's. ' Putting the titles (the pubs' names or the name of the speech) in italics is also usual. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 30 '16 at 8:57
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It might alternatively be stated as "State of the Union's"

I suspect that while "State of the Unions", as other answers mentioned, is likely to be understood - it is also possible that additional estrangement of the s would be used to help show the plural is of the whole phrase or clause, even if it isn't quite standard for plurals. It is not about the 's specifically meaning "pluralize the whole clause" (as it usually specifically means possessive), but about drawing attention to the "s" and its unusual use, and relying on context to show what that extra "s" was supposed to be adding (the whole phrase needs to be plural).

If the extra "s" was normalized in the phrase, not drawn attention to (as both "States" and "Unions" might be de-emphasized to do) then I would expect the meaning to likewise be normalized - the simple pluralization of the word, rather than the phrase. "States" of the union address would be one address covering multiple relevant systems of interest in the union, state of the "unions" would be one address covering the interactions between (or overall state of) several unions. So, spoken, it would take something like state-of-the-union(pause)-s to mean, "the whole thing that happened several times and we are referring to more than one".

Alternately, it might be written as "State of the Union(s)", (State of the Union)s, "State-of-the-Union's" or perhaps even "State of the Union-s", or "Union-es" or some such variation. These come across much better in written than spoken form, but a pause before adding the pluralizing -s or -es, or else an extra emphasis, may indicate that the meaning of such extra "s" in unusual - that it should not be confused with a normal plural or possessive, and in the correct context might be taken to mean the pluralization (or possessive, depending on context) of the whole phrase.

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I'm going to go in a bit of a different direction here and say the correct form should be "states of the Union". I read the following comment by The Wandering Coder in response to a different answer (emphasis mine), which prompted me to immediately disagree. :p

I agree just by looking at the term itself. It is address as to the state (the particular condition that someone or something is in at a specific time) of the Union (of the United States of America). There can no be multiple "states" as it refers to the current "state of affairs", and there can not be multiple unions (unless the US suddenly decided to fracture apart). The pluralised ['s] at the end of "Unions" in the question appears to be as you suggest, a contracted form of Address (a formal speech delivered to an audience) of which there can be multiples of.

I vaguely remembered reading about synecdoches in one of the Merriam-Webster word-of-the-week columns many years ago, which got me to thinking about metonymy in general. The idea here is that a word can refer to something it doesn't literally mean, by way of association. In this case, the State of the Union address is associated very tightly with the actual state of the Union at the time of the address.

So when your friend refers to the president's speech as a "state of the Union", he's using metonymy to connect a phrase referring to the actual state of the Union with the concept of a speech given annually to inform the people about said state.

Thus, if he's using "state (of the Union)" to refer to a single address, it would make sense to pluralize "state" to refer to multiple address. That is, the phrase "states of the Union" literally refers to the four or eight states the Union will be in during Trump's (presumed) term of office at the time he gives four or eight State of the Union addresses, but the phrase is being used figuratively to refer to the addresses themselves.

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Your question is if someone said, can you imagine his state of the unions, then how should it be written?

With a properly italicized title and an apostrophe 's' (we used to underline titles... don't get me started on that).

You cannot summarily butcher titles by hyphenating them to denote some kind of air quote, nor can you add letters to them, which is why the 's isn't italicized, and is why the quote below is unmistakably a plural version of a SOTUS, not a possessive, and in no way should you interpret it as using the plural of union.

Can you imagine his State of the Union's?

  • I was taught that we underline titles because typewriters cannot print italics and we don't write carefully enough to change the letter style when writing by hand (or at least most people don't). So with the advent of computers, it is natural to use italics instead of underlining. But I don't see what the apostrophe adds here; as far as I can tell, it only violates the rule that apostrophes indicate the possessive. – phoog Sep 30 '16 at 20:41
  • @phoog - It's a question of style (and how old you are ;). You were taught? Well, I was taught: "... many people do (or at one time did) use an apostrophe. That could be evidence for conventions having changed or their being some disagreement about best practice." –Plurals of acronyms, letters, numbers — use an apostrophe or not? – Mazura Sep 30 '16 at 20:55
  • yes, I was also taught to use an apostrophe to pluralize acronyms, letters, and numbers. But State of the Union is none of these (and I've since come to prefer the apostrophe-free approach to pluralizing letters and acronyms; how many 42s are there? still looks to me like "forty-two-S"). – phoog Sep 30 '16 at 20:59
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    If I read your example sentence without the context of your answer, I would unmistakably assume the apostrophe-s indicated a possessive. "Can you imagine his State of the Union's cost?", "Can you imagine his State of the Union's turnout if he wears that pink Fez?", and other, similar sentences spring to mind. After a moment I would realize you'd incorrectly used a possessive instead of a plural, then a moment after that would sit down and try to decide whether it was actually incorrect or just weird-looking. Then probably end up here. :) – MichaelS Oct 1 '16 at 0:48
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    @Tim: It's a contraction. State of the Union <s>addresse</s>s. The apostrophe indicates the missing letters. You could also just think of it as one of the weird edge cases where people do it because it otherwise looks weird. Like "he got seven A's, three B's, and one C". I don't really like it, but there is precedent. – MichaelS Oct 1 '16 at 10:19
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States of the Union

In choosing between pluralizing the States or the Unions, I would hope the preference would fall on the more correct assertion: there are either multiple States (Conditions) or multiple Unions. In context, Union refers to a single Country (USA); while State refers to the condition of that country at a singular point in time.

Adding "Address(es)" is extraneous, as the Address is merely a coincidental tradition for the report - which is handed in paper form to Congress to satisfy the Constitutional requirement.

Preserving "State of the Union" as a title is unappealing for two reasons:

  1. It's a phrase not a title: there is no ISBN number, it is not an index to a singular item - there are as many States of the Union as there have been years since its inception.
  2. Even if it were a title, I am unpersuaded that preserving its (already contracted) letter order is more important than preserving it's meaning.

In short, you may consider the current condition of a plurality of unions (OPEC, EU, USA, (F)SU, NBA) - or - a plurality of conditions at regular intervals of the same union: States of the Union conveys all of the meaning intended - nothing is lost, and nothing additional is required.

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  • "It's a phrase not a title: there is no ISDN number[.]" The State of the Union Addresses have no ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) because, likely, such numbers are called ISBNs (International Standard Book Number). – Řídící Oct 1 '16 at 16:59
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    "There are as many States of the Union as there have been years since its inception" - Incorrect. The state (i.e. condition) of the USA changes frequently; but there is a speech/address about it once a year. – AndyT Oct 3 '16 at 8:54
  • In an effort to better understand the phrase, I turned to the original source: the U.S. Constitution. There it says that the President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” – Travelschlepp Oct 3 '16 at 14:51

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