“The United States are” vs “The United States is”

I was asked recently by a co-worker what the correct grammar for this is – “The United States are big” or “The United States is big”. Although both sounds right in my mind, one (“is”) definitely sounded more right than the other.

The confusion obviously lies in whether “The United States” should be considered singular or plural. At first glance it seems like it should be plural – it refers to a collection of states, after all. However, it describes a singular unit – that is, the USA. However, the United States have not always been strictly “united”, even when they were first called so. So which one is ‘more’ correct?

Since this kind of thing is usually determined by popular usage, it’s great that we have tools such as Google Ngram Viewer, which allows you to choose several terms and pit them against each other. Ngrams Viewer will return their comparative frequency in written works from a vast corpus of books dating back as far as 1770.

Here’s the output graph:

So then, it appears to be a resounding win for “The United States is…” – ever since around 1880. It seems that the catalyst for this change was, as you’d expect, the Civil War, which ended up giving a far-reaching sense of unity to the USA, even in linguistic terms. “The United States is…” really starts to take off around 1910, during the Reconstruction.

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