I was intrigued by something New York Times soccer (football) writer Rory Smith mentioned the other day. Apparently there had been a discussion on his newsletter about the way British usage considers a team plural, but American usage has it singular: “Chelsea are playing today” versus “New York is playing today.” (If only). I’ve looked at the issue a a few times on the blog, most recently here; you can see all the posts by typing the word “plural” into the search field at right.
But I haven’t covered why this difference exists, and Smith reported getting a message from a reader with an explanation:
I think the American use of the singular “is” as opposed to the plural “are” came about as a result of the Civil War. Prior to the war Americans talked and wrote about the United States using the plural — these United States “are.” After the war common usage changed to the United States “is.” Gradually that usage came to be applied to other groups such as sports teams.
I found myself reacting skeptically, and sure enough, when I ran it by linguist Lynne Murphy, she was dubious about both of the reader’s claims. First, she said, “The relevance of the Civil War to the singularisation of the US is something that’s been said and debunked in various places (or at least, claimed to be too simplistic). Language Log has done some: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1794 and there’s this: https://t.co/teBf5Xo4t6.”
I subsequently found, in addition, an article by Ben Zimmer on the Visual Thesaurus website that pinpoints where Smith’s reader probably got his take. In Ken Burns’s wildly popular 1990 documentary about the Civil War, historian Shelby Foote says:
Before the war, it was said “the United States are.” Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always “the United States is,” as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an “is.”
Foote didn’t make the idea up; Zimmer quotes several others who espoused it starting in the 1890s. But none of them had any hard evidence. It turns out the War did not in fact mark an abrupt change. One scholar analyzed Supreme Court decisions and found, “justices continued to use the plural form through the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the plural usage was the predominant usage in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Only in the beginning of the twentieth century did the singular usage achieve preeminence and the plural usage disappear almost entirely.”
Google Books Ngram Viewer similarly finds that in U.S. books, “The United States are” (red line) prevailed until about 1880, after which “The United States is” (blue line) commenced a rapid ascent.
Smith’s reader’s other claim is that singular verbs for sports teams and other groups followed the example of “the United States.” Lynne Murphy didn’t buy that, either, calling it “fanciful/misguided.” There’s a section on this (complicated) topic in her book The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English, in which she cites research to the effect that singular use for collective nouns (“the government,” “the army,” “Parliament,” “Congress,” “New York,” “Chelsea”) has been on the rise worldwide since the 18th century. Americans have been the trailblazers, in other words, and the British the laggards.
One interesting line of research suggests that, in the 20th century, the British reversed course and started doing the plural-verb-for-collective noun bit more, possibly to set themselves apart from the Yanks. (A similar thing happened in Britain with the end of words like “realize/realise” and “organize/organise.” The “ize” form was more popular until the late 19th century, when the very-much-non-American “ise” started to surge.)
An example comes from a database containing Hansard, the proceedings of the house of Parliament. Here’s a chart showing the declining frequency of the phrase “the government is”* since 1910. (The bottom number — 2.58 in 1910, 0.70 in 1990 — is key, indicating how often the phrase occurs per million words.)
And here’s the chart for “the government are”:
All of which leads me to suggest that Rory Smith’s readers take up a new topic: why do Britain have the odd habit of using plural verbs for collective nouns?
*Note. Pure searches for “the government is” and “the government are” would lead to false positives, for example, sentences like “Members of the government are working hard.” To avoid these, I searched for instances where the phrase followed a colon and thus began a clause.