Are Names of Sports Teams and Bands Singular, or Plural?

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When referring to athletic teams or similar groups, what form of verb or pronoun applies? The recent victory of the Miami Heat over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the National Basketball Association championships indirectly put this issue in the headlines.

I don’t follow professional sports, so I didn’t even know these teams existed, but when I saw a headline about the game, I was intrigued by the fact that both team names are singular in form, rather than plural (as in the case of “the Los Angeles Lakers” or “the Chicago Bulls”). Back in the old days, before a handful of NBA teams with singular-form names came on the scene (the Utah Jazz and the Orlando Magic are the others), the answer to this question was threefold but simple:

When referring to the team by its full name, pronouns and verbs take the plural form: “The Los Angeles Lakers are going to the playoffs.” When referring to the organization that manages the team, they should be singular: “The Lakers organization is downplaying the incident.” When the geographical designation alone is employed, go with the singular form: “Los Angeles is leading the division.”

But now that we have Heat, Jazz, Magic, and Thunder to contend with, what’s the rule? The Chicago Manual of Style provides no guidance about the issue, but The Associated Press Stylebook provides a definitive answer: Nothing’s changed: The Miami Heat are the new NBA champs. The Thunder lost, and they went home determined not to let that happen again.

How to treat band names has had the same progression: Long before the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other combos of that era, plural group names were the norm; then came collective names such as Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, and the like. “The Beatles are the greatest band in rock history” is debatable, but the verb form is not. However, “Jefferson Airplane was from San Francisco” diverges from this form, as does text referring to a band with a name like the Who, which begins with an article but doesn’t patently refer to individual members.

Most publications that use American English apply a logical approach to refer to groups with such names by using singular verbs and pronouns, but most written in British English, apparently valuing consistency over logic, use plural forms. Whether the verb form for generic references is singular or plural — “The band is back on the road again” or “The band are back on the road again” — is, likewise, usually a matter of preference based on the variety of English employed.

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17 thoughts on “Are Names of Sports Teams and Bands Singular, or Plural?”

  1. Thanks for the post! I have asked elsewhere before about how to write band names but never received an answer. The sports teams mention is interesting too.

  2. I was brought up speaking British English but I find headlines such as “England are going to win” irksome. I prefer to treat all collective nouns as singular. I are sure this is the better way.

  3. First of all, it’s not *the* Jefferson Airplane; it’s just Jefferson Airplane. Curiously, (the) Eagles website states “The Eagles were awarded honorary doctor of music degrees.” I always favour the singular, unless a client’s house style dictates otherwise. I see bands, companies and governments as collective nouns.

  4. Maybe it’s me, but I am not seeing the difference between what you describe as “collective nouns” like Moby Grape and the “new band-name form” like Led Zeppelin.

    How is Led Zeppelin a different band-name form than Moby Grape?

  5. I think the fundamental difference between singular and plural for such things is the way you view them – is the team a singular entity operating as such, or is it a collective of individuals working together? If you consider a team, band, company, or whatever a single, independent entity, you’d use singular; if you think of them as being made up of individuals working under a common title, then you’d use plural forms.

  6. I usually treat them as collective nouns, but when I use a pronoun instead, I treat them as plurals. “GoldenEar is a great company, and their Triton Seven just rocks.”

  7. Maybe I’m overthinking it and confusion myself in the process…but, if your were discussing going to a game, what would be the correct form?

    “I am going to a Magic’s game.”
    “I am going to a Magic game.”

  8. Madeline:
    You are going to a Magic game. Just as you would not use a possessive form in “I am going to a Warriors game,” you would not employ one for a team name like “the Magic.”

  9. Interesting! We’ve just been having this debate in my office. Definitely “is” for an organisation, but it can go either way with sports franchises – though I lean more towards “are” in that case. Isn’t the English language grand? 🙂

  10. The British usage sounds awful to me. It doesn’t make sense either. All their soccer announcers use the plural verb with the singular team nicknames. It’s so common that the US soccer commentators have copied it.

    I found an article on the Guardian’s website referring to the navy:
    “The Royal Navy is facing a major shakeup…” is the first line of the article. So why is the singular verb form used here? The navy is a collection of people doing a job, not unlike a band or a sports team. It’s just a much, much larger scale. British English is really wrong here, and I wish they would correct this.

    Also, I know it’s never going to change.

  11. ‘The Beatles’ and ‘The Stones’, like ‘The Four Tops’, are obvious plural nouns.
    ‘Jefferson Airplane’ and ‘Moby Grape’ are singular collective nouns.
    Confusion arises when a team name like ‘Miami Heat’ or ‘Oklahoma City Thunder’ are used as noun-adjuncts/adjectival-nouns and the word they describe (for example, ‘players’ or ‘supporters’) is omitted. The plural form of the verb is then acceptable.
    Definitely not acceptable is the following headline in a UK newspaper: “Everton are a club with strong foundations…”. The context makes it clear that ‘Everton’ refers to the (singular) organization, not to some or all of their players.

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