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.