Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 29: Grammar Gone Wild

Our topic on Grammar Grater this week is ripped from the headlines. Last week, the Minnesota Wild, a team in the National Hockey League, had a change of ownership.

The Minnesota Wild—together with all sports teams, bands, choirs, corporations and other such groups—fall into a category known as collective nouns. According to Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Birchfield, a collective noun is a noun that is normally singular in form and denotes a collection or number of individuals. The Gregg Reference Manual has a similar definition.

The story about the sale of the Wild made sporting headlines across North America. But it brought an interesting dilemma to the surface: is it appropriate to refer to the team in the singular or the plural?

Indeed, for some hardcore prescriptivists, the question is a simple one with a firm answer. But for those with a broader view, it's not so easy.

Sticking to NHL teams, singular versus plural is not an issue with teams like the Blackhawks, the Bruins or the Canadiens. They're plural-sounding names and our natural tendency is to give them plural verbs:
The Bruins play Montreal next week.
The Blackhawks have signed a new player.
But when you have a name like "the Wild" that doesn't have a handy s at the end, things get a little tricky.

One person who explored this topic in the wake of last week's headlines about the Wild was Bob Collins of Minnesota Public Radio News. In his online column News Cut, Collins submitted the question to the arbiter of proper usage in manners of journalism, the Associated Press. He got this response from AP style guru, David Minthorn:
The "collective nouns" entry of the AP Stylebook says team names take plural verbs. So, the Minnesota Wild are ...
The AP's story on the sale of the team reflected this plural style:
Success on the ice has been limited for the Wild, who have made the playoffs twice in six seasons and are currently in seventh place in the Western Conference.
In an interesting contrast to the AP Style Guide, the UPI Stylebook—from United Press International—is pretty unbending about collective nouns. That book insists that collective nouns take singular verbs and pronouns. So that means the UPI requires:
The Wild plays its next game tonight.
Meanwhile, the BBC News Styleguide describes how the BBC is split by department over this matter. BBC Radio insists that collectives are plural; for example:
The government are debating new legislation.
But the BBC News Online insists on singular treatment of these:
The government is debating new legislation.
One place where the BBC Styleguide is in complete agreement, however, is when it comes to sports teams:
In sport, teams are always plural. England are expected to beat the Balearic Islands; Tranmere Rovers have extended their lead at the top of the Premiership. (Note: This passage was obviously written by an optimistic Tranmere Rovers supporter.)
Fowler's Modern English Usage splits the collective noun issue along geographical and political lines:
In British English, collective nouns can be singular or plural, so long as attendant pronouns follow suit. In American English the choice is much more restricted—i.e. the choice is singular.
But the Gregg Reference Manual, an American publication, doesn't draw any political lines around the topic. Instead, it allows the use of singular or plural verbs as follows:
If the group is thought of as acting as a unit, use the singular form of the verb. For example,
The board of directors meets Friday.
If the members of the group are thought of as acting separately, the verb should be plural. The committee are not in agreement on the action they should take.
Most importantly, the Gregg Reference Manual goes on to say this:
The choice of a singular or plural verb often depends on whether you wish to emphasize the group as a unit or as a collection of individuals. However, once the choice has been made, treat the collective noun consistently within the same context.
What that means is that if the choice is made to use singular verbs in reference to a collective noun, one is then required to use the singular pronoun it later on. For example, it's not correct to say or to write a sentence like this:
The Wild plays their next game tonight.
because plays and their do not agree. It's like saying,
They plays their next game tonight.
which kind of sounds like Popeye.

So the choice comes down to:
The Wild plays its next game tonight.
The Wild play their next game tonight.
Similar to sports teams, a look through music magazines such as SPIN, Rolling Stone, the NME and Q reveals that band names—whether or not they end in s—are treated in the plural, too:
The Shins have several albums to their credit.
U2 are working on a new film about their music.
Ultimately, it appears to boil down to writer or speaker choice—the majority of references we found support this. Do what you think sounds best—singular or plural—but then adhere to that form once you've made your choice, remembering to stay consistent with any subsequent pronouns (it or they, respectively) you use throughout your piece of writing.

Sources: : Gregg Reference Manual by William A. Sabin; AP Style Guide; the UPI Stylebook and Guide to Newswriting; Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield; BBC News Styleguide.

Music from this Episode: "Real Wild Child" by Iggy Pop; "Rock and Roll Part 2" by Gary Glitter; "Australia" by The Shins; "To Win Just Once" by The Saw Doctors.

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