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?
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.