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"American" and Other Demonyms

People in South America and Central America sometimes complain when I refer to citizens of the U.S. as “Americans.” Is there a better term I could use?

By
Mignon Fogarty
6-minute read

American Style Guides Support 'American' to Mean a US Citizen

The AP Stylebook (3) and Garner’s Modern English Usage (4) both back the use of “American” to mean a United States citizen, and despite recording all the discord about the term, Merriam-Webster says “American” to mean a citizen of the United States is “fully established.”

British and Canadian Style Guides Support 'American' to Mean a US Citizen

Lest you think I’m biasing my sources by using American books, the style guide of The Guardian, a UK paper, allows the word “American” to refer to US citizens (5), and the Canadian style guide from the Public Works and Government Services in Canada doesn’t address the topic directly, but uses “American” throughout its guide to refer to United States citizens (6).

What Should You Do?

My conclusion is that even though it’s not literally correct, it’s the accepted standard to use “American” to refer to a citizen of the United States of America, at least if you’re in an English-speaking country, because people know what it means and no better term has caught on.

People in other countries call us other things though. For example, people who speak Portuguese might call me a norte-americano (which means a North American) or an estadunidense (which means United Statesian). 

I do value accuracy, so I’m going to try to be more careful about this in the future and think about when it might make sense use “United States” where I may have reflexively used “America” in the past.

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.