Today Wikileaks posted a statement from Edward Snowden, time-stamped Monday July 1, 21:40 UTC. As originally posted, the first sentence of the fourth paragraph reads as follows:
For decades the United States of America have been one of the strongest defenders of the human right to seek asylum.
Screenshot (click to embiggen):
But mysteriously, at around 22:30 UTC (6:30 pm Eastern Time), the sentence was edited to read:
For decades the United States of America has been one of the strongest defenders of the human right to seek asylum.
Shortly before the edit was made, Slate's Farhad Manjoo had drawn attention to the peculiarity of an American using a plural verb ("have been") with "the United States of America" as the subject, tweeting:
Did Edward Snowden really write this? No American would use plural verbs for America — the United States "have been" http://t.co/gxEBBtBoj2
— Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) July 1, 2013
So what's going on? Has there been some sort of editorial mischief? If Snowden wrote the original, did he simply err in his verb choice, and an unseen hand made the change after Manjoo or others drew attention to it on social media? It's hard to know what's going on in the shadow world of Snowden and Wikileaks right now. But Manjoo is right that the original verb choice is distinctly unidiomatic for a native speaker of American English, and has been for the past century.
For more on how "the United States are" gave way to "the United States is," see my 2009 Word Routes column "The United States Is… Or Are?," which followed on my 2005 Language Log post, "Life in these, uh, this United States." Mark Liberman has also posted on the topic here and here. And finally, I give the shift from plural to singular "United States" as an example of what can be investigated on the new and improved Google Ngram Viewer in this article for the Atlantic.