Is U.S. a Noun?

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Whether it is in conversation or in various kinds of writing on the Web, you will hear and see the abbreviation U.S. for United States used as a noun, sometimes with periods and sometimes without:

I used to live in the U.S., but now I live in New Zealand.

the resistance to a single payer plan in the US is only a symptom of a far deeper problem at the heart of American culture…

Obesity in the US is owing to several causes.

When we left the U.S., we settled in Chile.

The abbreviation used as a noun is especially common in headlines, again, sometimes with periods and sometimes without:

Putin’s move could be costly to U.S. (CNN)

US, Russia to begin new round of talks over Ukraine (Fox News)

The OED illustrates three uses of U.S. as a noun, but the most recent is dated 1901 and that one refers to the language spoken by Americans, not the country:

1901 Daily Chron. 12 Aug. 5/2  On Saturday we asked what language is U.S., which is announced as ‘spoken’ in the window of a City office.

The Chicago Manual of Style prescribes spelling out United States as a noun in running text and reserving US for the adjective form only. CMOS also prefers US without periods, to match the US postal codes like AR, MI, and WY.

The AP Stylebook recognizes U. S. as a noun as well as an adjective. It calls for periods when the U.S. appears in a running text, but US without periods in a headline.

A question ESL learners sometimes ask is, “Should United States take a singular or plural verb?”

Although some speakers do say, “the United States are,” in conventional American usage, United States takes a singular verb: “The United States is divided into twelve judicial regions.”

On the Ngram Viewer (English corpus), “the United States are” and “the United States is” are neck and neck from the nation’s founding until 1827. The graph shows that the singular usage began to pull ahead in the 1830s; it really takes off in the 1860s, following the American War Between the States.

I’d guess that it’s the rare speaker who doesn’t use the abbreviation U.S. as a noun in conversation. When it comes to formal speaking and written text, however, reserve the abbreviation for adjectival use and write out United States as the noun.

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6 thoughts on “Is U.S. a Noun?”

  1. Good topic. I hadn’t thought about it.

    Most references to the United States mean the country as a unit, so the noun would take a singular verb. Remember that United States is an abbreviation of United States of America, and U.S. is an abbreviation of U.S.A. If you forgo abbreviating the term, the singular verb feels quite natural.

    I can make an argument that one can use the plural verb if referring to the states. “The United States have fifty different Vehicle Codes (not counting territories such as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands), and the central government has a fifty first.”

    Finally, I would discourage using United States as an adjective. Usually, one should use the askward possessive noun, United States’. Worse, some might be tempted to say United States’s.

    For an adjective, American and America’s (or in headlines, USA’s) sound and fit much better.

  2. Good post. May I just note that the term “United States is” has become the expectation since 1865 when a terrible civil war ended. Before the awful, brutal American Civil War, the vast majority of documents – official and private – referred to “United States are” indicating the stronger pull of regional/state identities.

    Bottomline: English language teachers and learners should understand that the entire 50 states are now united so we say “the United States is” a fascinating country.

  3. Note: The United Arab Emirates IS, the United States of Mexico IS, the Union of Soviet Soviet Repubics WAS, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland IS, the Republic of the Philippines IS, the Kingdom of The Netherlands IS, and the Northwest Territories IS a territory of Canada, with the other two being the Yukon Territory and Nunavut. Also, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations IS, Newfoundland and Labrador IS, and Trinidad and Tobago IS.
    The Netherlands IS a founding member of NATO and the United Nations.
    We have a case of items that appear to be plural, but they are gramatically singular, just like aerodynamics, electrodynamics, electrostatics, hydrodynamics, magnetostatics, physics, robotics, and plate tektonics are.

    On the other hand, the Carolinas ARE and the Dakotas ARE, and the Confedrate States of America WERE.

  4. Interesting question in the sense that it’s never occurred to me. And, frankly, I’m not sure why it would. Why wouldn’t US or U.S. be a noun? It’s just an abbreviation. Like PRS, UK, ROK, etc. Don’t people say “in the UK”? They do here. Its use as an adjective would seem more questionable, but it is used officially as an adjective all the time: USAF, USDA, US capital, US Postal Service. Using “American” in those contexts seems decidedly wrong. I would venture this: In formal contexts, connotatively, at least, “US” as an adjective relevant to the US government or political entities, while “American” is applied to people a cultural elements, etc. So you’d talk about American cooking, or American athletes, or American language but not the American Army, or the American Congress. You say the US Public Health Service or US government, not the “American”, etc. That distinction aligns, e.g. with state names and demonyms. The Texas Rangers protect Texans. Not the Texan Rangers protect Texas people. Right? New Yorkers understand the New York subway system. Likewise the UK is a place full of British people and things, right? Of course most places don’t have the distinction: Canadian, Mexican, German. I would also compare US as an adjective to “Royal” or “Federal”, which would apply to govt or related institutions, but not to people or culture. Informally, of course, the terms are used much more loosely.

    It does seem to be true, historically, that it was common to refer to “these United States”, and to use other plural forms before the Civil War. Whether the CW caused this change is another question.

    As for periods in abbreviations, it has been a strong trend for some time for periods to be omitted in all-caps initials. Many government agencies, like the Army, mandate it now for rank designations. U.S. is not wrong, but US is fine, and many style guides insist on it.

  5. All countries and country names are nouns.

    United States is a country now. As is ONE country.

    They used to consider EACH state a country. Southerners, especially those in Texas Still consider their own state a separate country.

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