Getting the United States “United”

In Ken Burns’ acclaimed 1991 documentary, The Civil War, southern writer Shelby Foote became the series’ most memorable commentator. Burns had not planned to give him so much visibility, but Foote’s Mississippi Delta drawl and his often-witty observations essentially stole the show. But some of Foote’s observations were actually quite profound, many having contemporary relevance.

Foote noted that prior to the Civil War, people said “the United States are” — using the grammatical plural; but after the Civil War it became “the United States is.” As Foote put it, a major…