A Grammar Lesson from a Veteran

The National Tribune, July 18, 1901.

I was scouring the digitized pages of The National Tribune, a popular newspaper aimed at US veterans where they could submit stories of their experiences, and came across an interesting debate about the grammatical status of “United States.” Nowadays, we say “the United States is” without thinking about it. However, in the early 1800s it was common to see the United States referred to in the plural, necessitating the use of “the United States are.” Apparently, the paper had served host to a debate over the use of “are” or “is,” and veteran George W. Marsh wrote in to lay the matter to rest. To him, as well as to many other Americans, the crucible of the Civil War and the strengthening of the central government meant that “United States” was no longer a plural noun, but singular. This spirited newspaper debate serves as a reminder that the Civil War irrevocably changed the national identity, and also as a note that language can change over time as society changes.

The roster of the 60th New York Infantry, a regiment that served in the Twelfth Corps of the Army of the Potomac and the Twentieth Corps of the Army of the Cumberland, states that 18-year-old Marsh enlisted in October 1861 at Ogdensburg. He re-enlisted in December 1863, was wounded during the Atlanta campaign on June 15, 1864, and mustered out with his unit in July 1865. With a service record like that, I’ll defer to Marsh’s judgement.

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