Are the any differences in formality or context between "the USA", "the US" and "the States"?

I've tried NGram and it seems that "the US" is by far the most common expression and "the States" is the least common (would you sound like you are from the 19th century if you used it?). Of course, the search doesn't include spoken language.

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Finally, in a conversation, would you say "the US" or "the United States?


7 Answers 7


I personally use the US when speaking about the country in general, the States when talking to someone overseas (about coming over, for instance), and rarely — or never the USA.

However, I think generally, most people use the US in conversation. The only time I ever hear people use the USA is when they say it emphatically and patriotically.

  • Just adding to this that there's definitely a geographic distance in usage. In the US places I've lived (Missouri/Illinois border and Oklahoma) it's pretty much universally "The US"; "The States" wasn't even remotely common. It doesn't sound weird, though (I still have known what you were talking about, and definitely wouldn't register it as "archaic", just a bit different). On the other hand, in Alberta, Canada, I hear it considerably more often than "The US". My friends from Toronto use it too. Commented Feb 19, 2022 at 22:07
  • The difference in usage is enough that I /suspect/ someone is from/not from the US based on the usage of each construction though (although to clarify, I know since living in Edmonton the past few years and having heightened awareness of it I have registered an East Coast speaker use it). Commented Feb 19, 2022 at 22:08
  • @DavidMcKnight: Yeah, as I specified, I might use The States when speaking to someone overseas who's thinking of coming here for instance, and I'll say something like "Once your in the States, you'll have to blah blah blah..." Are you American? I noticed some non-native patterns in your writing.
    – CocoPop
    Commented Feb 19, 2022 at 22:12
  • Yes, I was agreeing with that, not disagreeing! Re the second bit, do you mean my comma/quotes placement? Curious if there's anything else. I'm from the US, yes (relatively young person from St. Louis and later Oklahoma). That specific feature has been typical of my informal writing for a number of years now though (predating the move up here to Canada, although they prefer similar punctuation to the US on that front)- I just feel like it makes more sense. In formal writing I mostly defer to whatever style guide seems appropriate though. Commented Feb 19, 2022 at 22:23
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    @DavidMcKnight: Actually, it was "I still have known what you were talking about."
    – CocoPop
    Commented Feb 19, 2022 at 22:44

In US, the word most commonly spoken out of three is "US". "USA" is more formal and official. While, based on my own experience, "States" is hardly used by natives.

As a general rule, spoken language uses the smallest available options.


As far as I know, "US" can be used as an adjective while the others can't (though I'm not sure why) -- "US cities" is OK but "USA cities" or "States cities" sound weird. That might be one reason for its frequency.


Some of the trouble comes from being a federation of states, not a single country. "The States" refers to the collection of states, "The US" refers to the states that are united, or, more loosely, to the union of States.

The problem is that there's very, very, very many nations made up of multiple states. Even Belgium is made up out of 3 parts that could very well be called states. "The USA" is therefore the only unambiguous way to refer to "The United States of America", in fact it might better be "The United States of North America".

Ultimately, the USA have no name for there union! Except maybe just "America", after the continent it is the biggest nation in. It would also retrofit the use of "Americans", which probably used to refer to people that lived on the continent, but now refers to citizens of "The United States of (North) America".

Ultimately it doesn't matter. The US, The States, the USA, it all refers to the same thing in people's heads. Just use the word your audience expects you to, that'll work best.

  • 1
    Yeah, I've often thought it was funny that my country doesn't really have a name, we just have a description of the country's form of organization. Calling a country "the United States" is like calling it "the Republic" or "the Empire". I suppose "the United Kingdom" is a similar phenomenon. "Federated States of Micronesia" at least has the "Micronesia" in there.
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 16:10

well, here in Brazil it is comon to refer to USA as "the States", although we say a "brazilianized" version of it : "os estates". We use it to refer to America, since it it easer to say than "US" or "USA" and we also try to say "os estates" with an American accent to make it sound more "American". Also Brazilians do not refer themselves as Americans, neither to Canadians. Americans refers exclisively to people from the USA. Canadians are Canadians and Brazilians are Brazilians.


USA - United States of America. US - United States The States - well, self-explanatory

I'm from England and I have never heard anyone English refer to it as the states, though I've watched American sitcoms where a character might say it. We don't really say the US either, we prefer saying America or USA, moreso America than anything else (despite theire being two seperate contintnets which have America within their name).

I think it's just a preference thing, but like I said the English like saying America or USA

Note: we use 'America' for North America.

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    I am also English and disagree with just about everything you have said. Only the ignorant use 'America' for 'North America' but I grant it is often used as a synonym for 'USA'. The use of 'The States' is very common, I'm surprised that you've never heard it.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 11:29
  • Well, which part of England because differnt places have a difference in speech, I'm from the south (near to Brighton) and no one in this area says the states. Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 12:24
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    I've never heard a Canadian call himself American. Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 16:40
  • @JoeTaxpayer: Nor a Mexican nor a Brazilian. Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 19:01

When I travel oversea, I always answer that I am from States, and people understand. When my friends come back from travel oversea, I ask either "when were you back to States?" or "When were you back to US?" I rarely use USA in conversation, I use it in formal paper. I was taught that way.

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