From an early age, we are taught that subjects and verbs have to agree. Singular subjects get singular verbs, and plural subjects get plural verbs – seems simply enough, right?
As the NBA Finals have proven, the English language is a tricky beast. Copy editors across the nation are pulling their hair out in frustration as the Miami Heat takes on the Oklahoma City Thunder – or should that be, “the Miami Heat take on the Oklahoma City Thunder”?
Most NBA team names are plural nouns – the Bulls, the Spurs, the Sonics, the Nets, the Hawks, the Knicks. These teams make sports writing easy because they obviously deserve plural verbs. But in the 1980s, plural noun team names evidently were out of vogue, a fad that gave us the Heat and Orlando Magic. Then, in the 1990s, the Oklahoma City Thunder emerged. These team names are neither strictly plural nor strictly singular; instead, these are known as “mass nouns”.
Mass nouns are nouns which cannot be counted. You could count claps of thunder, but you cannot count thunder. You can measure heat in degrees, but you cannot actually count heat. Normally, mass nouns are considered singular:
- Wisdom is hard to come by.
- Knowledge is of great value to any scholar.
- Music is a passion of mine.
But when it comes to sports teams, copy editors cannot seem to decide: Are the teams plural or singular? Typically, a team is plural (it is, after all, made up of multiple players); in fact, the British treat all team names (plural, singular, or otherwise) as plural nouns. But since usage rules dictate that mass nouns be singular, the plural usage just doesn’t sound right to many readers – thus the confusion. Consider this New York Times article, which treats the Thunder both ways with phrases such as:
- “the Thunder were ready”
- “the Thunder..use their youth”
- “the Thunder was”
In writing about the Thunder vs. Heat matchup, different publications treat the teams in different ways; Sports Illustrated used the names as plural nouns, but The Miami Herald used them as singular nouns.
But which is right?
The world may never know. English style rules are often incredibly arbitrary – for every rule, there are a dozen exceptions. The case of the mass noun team name is no different – either usage could be considered correct depending on whom you ask. But when confronted with a grammar conundrum in which either option could be correct, the most important rule of all is: Pick one and be consistent. We’re talking to you, New York Times.