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Nov 14 / King Kaufman

Singular-sounding team names: Is they is or is they ain’t plural?

The Alabama Crimson Tide are plural. At least at Bleacher Report they are. So are the Miami Heat, the Colorado Avalanche, the North Texas Mean Green and the Southern California Sun.

That last one is just in case you suddenly decide to start writing about the World Football League.

City or school names are singular. Alabama is no longer undefeated. Miami is in first place. And a really important point: Alabama is an it, not a they. A common grammatical error on any sports site is something like “Alabama has to win Saturday if they want to go to the title game.”

People have been arguing about this for years as more and more teams have popped up with names that don’t follow the traditional format of a plural noun ending in s, like Steelers, Yankees, Celtics or Anteaters. Here’s New York Times columnist William Safire wrestling with singular team names in 1997 and reaching the conclusion that if the name sounds singular, it should be treated as singular. The Utah Jazz is.

With all due respect to the late, lamented language maven, Bleacher Report style is for team nicknames to take plural verbs and pronouns even if the name has a seemingly singular form. So the Jazz are, yes they really are, not the Jazz is.

Safire’s conclusion was a perfectly good one. But that’s a funny thing about language: Something only becomes a hard-and-fast rule when everybody agrees. So while everyone who matters is on board with the idea that, say, the adjective comes before the noun in a phrase like “the tall tree,” we don’t have that kind of agreement on singular-sounding team names.

We probably will in a few decades. Treating names like Heat and Tide as plural seems to be the more popular solution. The Associated Press and Sports Illustrated, to name two, join B/R in going plural. That’s probably because it just feels more natural. It’s hard to picture turning to your buddy and saying, “The Heat is really playing well tonight,” don’t you think?

You’re free to say that to your friend. But if you’re writing it for Bleacher Report, what’s happening is that the Heat are really playing well.

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If the headline is a mystery:

  • Phil Watson

    Can we push for a constitutional amendment banning singular-plural team names? I’d help gather signatures for that.

    • King_Kaufman

      Where do I sign?

      • Phil Watson

        I tried to get the petition, but they gave me a lot of Heat and said I wanted to Jazz it up too much.

  • Kelly Scaletta

    So if it’s the Stanford Cardinal, a singular team name that sounds like it should be a plural, we should still use the plural even though it sounds like it should be the singular. That sounds like the singular thing your saying anyway.

    • King_Kaufman

      I prefer to avoid that subject entirely, but yes, that’s what I’m saying.

  • Rachel

    It’s interesting, because in the UK it is always “are,” regardless. Chelsea are the European champions, Manchester United are top of the League etc. You would sound like a crazy person if you used singular for any team – they are thought of as a group of people, rather than a franchise.

  • bigfish615

    Just got into this debate on another forum. i think in my mind I extrapolate out past “the Heat” and think in context “the Heat (players)” ARE and the “the Heat (team)” IS, but then it once again depends on the context. I am with Safire: whatever “sounds” right is right.