It’s Not “the Government” – Hidden Power of Words Series, #12

One part of the oral portion of my comprehensive exams back in May 2013 has stayed with me (“haunted” you could say!) more than any other: Discuss the government as a plural noun and as a singular noun.

At first I was baffled and surprised. I asked for clarification (and the question was repeated). I knew this was getting at something important than I had ever specifically grasped before.

This one question has really had a strong imprint on how I think. The idea of the government as being both a plural and singular noun is important and either not recognized or under recognized most of the time.

Most people say “the government” so and so as if it were one entity. Or use “government” as a generic (and ambiguous) noun to refer to any and all aspects of the government.

Upon a closer examination and specific examination (or should we say specific recognition) we realize that “the government” is a gigantic multi-faceted, multi-layered organization with various branches that are frequently at odds with themselves. Consider the recent (and not-so-recent) conflicts between states in the South and the Federal Executive branch.

Instead of saying “government,” we should at least say “governments” and at best specifically say what part of the government we are talking about—the FDA, County Police, a City Mayor, a School Board, a State Supreme Court, the Speaker of the U.S. House, the Secretary of Education, etc., etc., etc.

We can all increase our civic and historical literacy by recognizing, specifically acknowledging, how powerful and over-simplifying the word “government” really is and reform our language to be much more specific.

Please check out other articles in the Hidden Power of Words Series!