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Oct 28 / Tim Coughlin

Common B/R style errors, Part 1: Verb, pronoun agreement

We try to provide B/R writers with plenty of resources—such as the Engagement GuideContent Standards and Attribution Guidelines—in order to be completely transparent with our policies and rules. Nevertheless, many of the issues that slow editors down are related to specific style points we employ at Bleacher Report.

Many of these points are adapted to fall in line with the AP Stylebook, while others are special to B/R. The B/R Stylebook discusses these points in detail, and all writers should bookmark this resource as a quick reference and keep a copy of the AP Stylebook on hand. But beyond that, remember to check feedback from your copy editor on the article history page. If you can learn what they’re changing and adapt, you’ll contribute to greater efficiency in the editing process.

Over the next three Mondays, we’re going to go over some common mistakes that copy editors come across. First, we’ll cover verb and pronoun agreement. Next week, we’ll talk about numbers, and in two weeks we’ll review a kind of grab-bag of issues.

Much of the language we’ll use in addressing these frequent errors comes directly from the B/R Stylebook.

Verb and Pronoun Agreement

When you’re referring to a city or school name in American sports, you have to treat it as a singular entity for both the verb and pronoun. This is accepted as proper American English grammar in writing, but it’s so seldom observed in speech that many writers get it wrong even when they know better.

The convention in British English is the opposite, making this issue even murkier and resulting in one of the trickier entries in the B/R Stylebook, Singular and plural team names: 

1. For North American teams referred to by nickname: Verbs and pronouns are plural.

The Cleveland Cavaliers WERE LeBron James’ first team.

Note that this rule applies even to teams with nominally singular nicknames:

The Miami Heat ARE LeBron James’ current team.

2. For North American teams referred to by city or school name: Verbs and pronouns are singular.

Miami IS LeBron James’ current team.

3. For European teams referred to by city, school or nickname: Verbs and pronouns should be plural in both cases.

Chelsea ARE my favourite football club.


The Blues ARE my favourite football club.

4. Note that some North American writers writing about European teams will use the singular form of verbs and pronouns. Editors should defer to the author in such cases, or when the teams discussed are from other continents altogether.

Chelsea is my favorite European football team.

Almost all writers get the verb part and know that “The Heat are playing well” is correct while “Miami are playing well” is wrong. In America, the latter would make you sound like you’re either British or a music snob who refers to singular-sounding band names as plurals. The Heat are an interesting example because their team nickname is ostensibly singular as well, but at B/R, we follow AP Style and treat all team nicknames as plurals.

That takes us to pronouns, because if we didn’t follow AP Style and instead paired nicknames like “the Heat” and “the Jazz” with singular verbs, we’d never be able to use the pronoun “they” to refer to them without creating a separate grammatical conflict. With that in mind, we can say something like this: “Bosh didn’t taste much success at the NBA level before joining the Heat in 2010, but he’s helped them win two NBA titles since.” If we were in singular mode, we’d have to rewrite that or say, “he’s helped it win two NBA titles since,” and that would be awkward.

Let’s look at a tidier example to see how incompatible a plural pronoun is with a singular city/school name in American English. “The Knicks are their own worst enemy” would be correct, of course. “New York are their own worst enemy” sounds obviously wrong to American ears, but while a lot of Americans would say, “New York is their own worst enemy,” that too is incorrect, for the same reason. The offending word, in this case the pronoun “their,” doesn’t agree with either the singular noun “New York” or the correctly singular verb “is.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, it’s a bit simpler: We’d write “Manchester United are their own worst enemy” without pause because when you treat any team name as a plural, it’s pretty hard to screw it up. It follows that both the subject and verb should also be plural.

It’s like an equation: plural = plural = plural. Singular = singular = singular. You shouldn’t put a plural pronoun like “they” or “their” with a singular subject and verb just because you know you’re referring to a group of people. Make sure everything balances out and agrees on a grammatical level.

So whether you’re in London and writing about Chelsea or Miami and writing about the Heat, don’t be disagreeable. Get your verbs and pronouns right.

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See also: Team names: Is they is or is they ain’t plural?

Tim Coughlin is the Editing Manager at Bleacher Report. Content Moderator Nick James contributed to this post.