Miami Heat bewilder (or bewilders?) grammar police

Posted at 06/22/12 10:20 PM

MANILA, Philippines – The Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls are considered plural even if they are collective nouns.

How about the Miami Heat? The National Basketball Association (NBA) champion or champions?

There's also Oklahoma City Thunder. Runners-up or runner-up?

Sportswriters and editors worldwide have struggled to lay down a rule if "Heat" or "Thunder" should be considered plural or singular.

This shows in a New York Times story that defined the Oklahoma City Thunder as both singular and plural:

"'Well, we never thought that we were supposed to wait our turn,' said Durant, to the question of whether the Thunder were ready to book a place in the finals opposite the winner of the East's Boston-Miami series. Coach Scott Brooks said he had never allowed the Thunder to use their youth as an excuse, a means of rationalizing defeat with the understanding there would be many more chances to come. He insisted this game had been approached like any other, with the caveat that the Thunder was typically 'an excitable group' under any conditions."

Dictionary.com explains the conundrum:

"Technically, a team is made up of many players, so it should be plural like other teams. However, the actual name of the team takes a singular verb. Take a more general example of a mass noun: water. You would never say, 'the water are flowing from the tap.'"

Group nouns also trip up students (and professionals). Here’s an example: 'A group of third graders is going to the zoo.' Technically, 'a group' is the subject of the sentence, and it takes a singular verb (is). Even though you might not notice if the sentence read, 'A group of third graders are going to the zoo.'"

There's no problem when it comes to British English, as it considers an athletic team as plural (Manchester United have won...), as explained in this Poynter article.

Reuters, an international news agency with headquarters in London, uses British English.

Another news agency, Agence France-Presse, also adheres to British English.

American sportswriting, however, generally sees a team as collective noun that takes a singular form (Manchester United has won…) unless it has a modifier (The Boston Celtics have…).

However, the Associated Press Stylebook, which is generally in American English, says it uses the plural for all team names: 

"The Jazz are playing the Knicks. The Miami Heat are practicing today."

The AP Stylebook also recommends that all band names and musical groups should take a plural form:

"U2 are planning to release a new CD. Maroon 5 are touring Asia."

The Baltimore Sun's John McIntyre, who is held in high esteem by copy editors worldwide, told sports website Deadspin that the singular form of the Miami Heat or Oklahoma City Thunder will look and sound more natural if your audience uses American English.

The rule is not set in stone, however. McIntyre said the key lies in consistency.

If you are going to use the singular form, make sure all mentions of the team are singular when it comes to subject-verb agreement.

"Since a case can be made for either usage, and style rules are inherently arbitrary anyhow, I think you should pick the choice with which you are most comfortable and follow it consistently," he said.

So is it champion or champions Miami Heat?

Either is correct. Both are right.

Just choose between plural or singular and stick with it.