It is sometimes thought that one of the grammatical differences between AmEng (American English) and BrEng (British English) is the way in which the latter allows certain singular nouns to have plural agreement. Data for two examples from the COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) and the BNC (British National Corpus), as presented in the following table, shows the difference. The COCA contains 4.5 million words, the BNC 1 million words, so I have adjusted the COCA figures to produce results comparable to those from the BNC. The raw COCA figures are in brackets.
|1a. the government is||628 (2827)||742|
|1b. the government are||28 (124)||303|
|2a. the committee is||37 (169)||79|
|2b. the committee are||5 (23)||18|
This clearly shows that plural agreement in these two cases is indeed more frequent in BrEng than in AmEng. In both varieties singular agreement is more frequent than plural agreement, but it is more frequent by a greater factor in AmEng than in BrEng. In the case of 1, singular agreement is 22 times greater than the plural in AmEng, whereas it is only 2.5 times as frequent in BrEng.
More examples would be required to allow a definitive conclusion, but BrEng does seem, in these two instances, more sympathetic than AmEng to notional than grammatical agreement. In ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’, Pam Peters gives the examples
The family has decided to celebrate on Sunday
The family have decided to celebrate on Sunday
and suggests that ‘The singular verb implies an official consensus of the group, whereas the plural makes the reader / listener more aware that individual members assented to the suggestion.’ Much the same could be said for a comparable sentence using ‘the government’ or ‘the committee’. Peters provides a list of other words which, at least in BrEng, allow a choice between singular and plural agreement. They include, among others, audience, assembly, board, company, congregation, council, group and panel.
Why BrEng should be more adaptable in this respect is not clear. With government, at least, plural agreement isn’t new, for the OED has three citations showing its use in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the question to ask is why AmEng is so averse to it.