The United States Have Been… But Not Since Gettysburg

The authenticity of a statement released by Wikileaks today and attributed to Edward Snowden is in doubt, as several journalists doubted any American would use plural verbs for America. “Snowden” wrote that “for decades the United States have been one of the strongest”–and let’s stop the charade right there. No American, however disoriented in a faraway country, is likely to lose his or grip on our native speech pattern. The voice is supposedly the voice of Snowden, but the hands seem to be the hands of Assange–seeking a blessing obscure to me. But the telltale non-American grammar reminded me, on this 150-year anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, of something I heard years ago about American usage before and after the Civil War. Before the war, Americans would say “the United States have been…” After the war, “the United States,” more and more, became singular–even as the “unfinished work… the great task remaining before us… a new birth of freedom” still stretches out ahead.