“At the half, the United States have the lead!” So declares Arlo White, NBC’s British commentator, during the women’s football final game of the London Olympics. We arrived home to Tennessee only a little while ago from England , and though we had to miss yesterday’s amazing overtime US-Canada match, we did manage to catch the game today against Japan at Wembley Stadium.
It was just over a week ago that I took the boys to Wembley to watch the British women’s team beat Brazil, and it is a spectacular venue. While we were there, my younger son pointed out to me that, with so many people taking photographs, the place just seemed to sparkle. Wembley is indeed “the spiritual home of English football,” as Arlo says.
Arlo—now, is he a soccer announcer, or a football presenter? It all depends, I know, on who’s asking. You say tomato, I say tom-ah-to, yadda yadda. And yet, the expression “The United States have the lead,” using the plural verb instead of the singular, is somehow grating to me. “No American would say that,” my wife remarks during the half-time break, just before one of the American color commentators goes ahead and does just that. We agree that, in all likelihood, he’s just displaying the usual American insecurity before the English in all things grammatical. Either that, or he’s being pedantic.
“United States have” is really no more than an idiomatic difference, a Britishism like “trousers’ or “lorry” without any real semantic significance, right? “England and America are two countries separated by the same language,” as George Bernard Shaw (or Oscar Wilde?) once jokingly said. What else is there to make of it?
Perhaps nothing. But still, I’m back home in Sewanee, as I’ve mentioned, where I am suffering from some shock of cultural re-entry and even more jet-lag. Suddenly, it occurs to me that there is a reason why “the United States have” is sticking in my craw. To be in the South again is to be in the only part of the county where the idea of the States as a collective whole has seriously been challenged.
As you may know from my profile page, I teach Latin and Greek here at the University of the South. Among my predecessors is probably the greatest American classicist ever, Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, who taught summer school here in the 1880s. Gildersleeve went on to found the American Journal of Philology, was among the founding faculty of Johns Hopkins University, and authored the standard handbook of Latin grammar.
But what’s of immediate interest here is that Gildersleeve was a Southerner, and during the Civil War, fought for the Confederacy (during the summers, mind you, when he was teaching Greek at the University of Virginia). He remained a dedicated Confederate till his death in the 1920s, writing a few powerful essays on the topic (“A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War” is the best of them, in case you’re interested.) In another essay, Gildersleeve offered this critical insight: “It was a point of grammatical concord that was at the bottom of the Civil War— ‘United States are,’ said one, ‘United States is,’ said another.” (“The Channels of Life,” in Hellas and Hesperia, p. 16).
You don’t have to like Gildersleeve, but you have to hand it to him here, because, in a nutshell, this is it. The idea of the United States as a disparate group rather than a collective whole doesn’t sound right to American ears, for the simple reason that it in fact isn’t right. The matter was settled a long time ago, over issues a lot more serious than the niceties of grammar, but there you have it. The United States is a single country, not a group of states. E pluribus unum, n’est-ce pas? And now that the U.S. women have won the gold medal in
football soccer, it seems a good time to celebrate that fact. USA! We’re (#) 1!