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One Americas, indivisible

IN A SPEECH last Sunday in Brazil, the final stop of his four-day visit to Latin America, President Bush articulated a vision of unity: ''an Americas that lives in liberty, trades in freedom, and grows in prosperity.''

That singular ''Americas'' was no slip of the tongue. Moacir Sena, listening at home in Sao Paulo, heard Bush use it several more times: ''The Americas has declared democracy indispensable,'' the president said, and ''this vision is the free consensus of a free Americas.''

''I understand that he was talking about the 'continent' of the Americas,'' e-mailed Sena, a former Connecticut resident who keeps up with the Globe online. ''But even so...isn't it inaccurate, or at least an awkward construction?''

Awkward it certainly is, and ungrammatical too, for most of us; the Americas, North, Central, and South, usually take a plural verb when they go out together. But this isn't the first time the president has offered his singular version of ''an Americas''; there were half a dozen such constructions in a June speech to the Organization of American States.

And it's not just a Republican thing: In 2000, Lawrence Summers-then Bill Clinton's treasury secretary, now president of Harvard-gave a presentation on ''An Americas for the 21st Century.''

Is there a political agenda in this number-change operation? It's tempting to think that speechwriters and policy makers hope the language of togetherness-''the Americas is a vast market''-will help sell Latin America on the dream of economic synergy.

But the explanation may be simpler: There's a shortage of collective names for the hemisphere. ''America'' the singular has been appropriated as a nickname for the United States. ''The American continent'' is a mouthful, and confusing to everyone who thinks of it as two continents. ''The New World'' is out of date.

Most of the time, in fact, the plural name-''the Americas are a vast market''-works fine. But when a proper name is treated as a count noun-a rhetorical staple of campaign speeches (''I see an America blessed with peace and prosperity'')-it can only be singular; hence the president's ''an Americas wholly free and democratic.'' Yes it's a bit weird-but is ''I see an American hemisphere wholly free and democratic'' any better?

And the singular ''Americas'' may grow on us. After all, the United States were plural when they first formed their union. ''Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies,'' says the Constitution, and George Washington wrote that ''the United States are making great progress toward national happiness.''

The Civil War is often credited with (or blamed for) transforming ''the United States'' into a singular noun, but whatever drove the change, it was a long time coming. Abraham Lincoln himself, in his first inaugural address in 1861, referred to ''the fate of these United States''; James Russell Lowell, writing the same year, used the plural verb even as he rejected the notion of plurality: ''The United States are not a German Confederation, but a unitary and indivisible nation.''

Half a century later, the singular was gaining ground, but the battle was not over. ''The noun United States[,] once used almost invariably as a plural form, is now more often regarded as singular,'' a 1905 grammar advised. But Ambrose Bierce, writing in 1909, scoffed at the singular ''United States'': ''The fact that we are in some ways one nation has nothing to do with it; it is enough to know that the word States is plural.''

Today, of course, ''the United States'' is united grammatically. Aside from the occasional folksy reference to ''these United States,'' we're one nation, singular-verbed and indivisible. Who's to say ''the Americas'' won't take the same path? Watch for it at a trade summit near you.

. . .

DISORDERS OF MAGNITUDE: I don't know which is more unsettling-that in last week's column I referred to a 500-year period as ''millennia,'' or that it took two days for a reader to point out that 500 years is (of course) a mere half-millennium. (Thank you, Alta Hodges of Auburndale.) Does this mean millennium is losing its specific meaning, so that we read it as just a squishy synonym for ''a really long time''? If so, I'm sorry I contributed to its squishification.


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