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Posts Tagged ‘subject-verb agreement’

Response to “The Thunder is Playing Well”

The media criticism show On The Media recently aired a radio segment on grammar issues with certain NBA team names like The Heat and The Thunder. The show notes that unlike most other team names that allow the regular plural suffix (-s), these names are treated as mass nouns. Semantically speaking, all team names denote a plural group of players. But when it comes to subject-verb agreement, copyeditors and sportswriters are confused whether The Heat and The Thunder should be treated as grammatically singular or grammatically plural.

In other words, which is correct?

1. The Heat are playing well.

2. The Heat is playing well.

As the show starts us wondering about how to resolve this issue of usage, I couldn’t help to think about how many times my students have asked me to give them the rule about all sorts of similar issues. I’ve always felt like no matter how I answer them, I’m not satisfied.

Show guest and sportswriter Tom Scocca observes that in actual usage, publications vary in treating these names as both grammatically singular and plural. At the end of the piece Scocca takes a fairly nuanced position: there’s no fixed rule about which way to treat these team names. Instead, you have to examine them in the context of the sentence they appear and judge which sounds better. (Here it strikes me that investigating usage disputes based on the judgments of native speakers on a case-by-case basis is the same methodology used by linguists.)

In my experience, this sort of answer leaves many writing students unsatisfied. Most want fixed rules and definitive answers. They want the safety of a bright red line that can be drawn across all contexts, clearly separating the correct from the incorrect. This is the worldview inculcated by an educational system overtaken by multiple-choice tests. And this is the certainty that many handbooks provide: always place a comma before coordinating conjunctions. Only use “whom” in the following situations.

If only language were so tidy. Although these maxims may work in the prototypical contexts, when you examine the messiness of usage across many contexts, you’ll find countless irregularities and idiomatic exceptions, you’ll find that respected writers vary in their preferences, and you may even find that different usages often correspond to subtle differences in meaning or style. For instance, #1 above sounds more British, while #2 sounds more American. In addition, Brock Haussamen takes the position that in cases where the verb morphology and the plural/singular morphology of the subject don’t agree in the normal way, the speaker may be conveying a slight meaning difference.[1] According to this view, the plural morphology on the verb in #1 entails that the playing described by the verb is being performed by separate entities, whereas in #2, the singular morphology on the verb entails that the playing is being performed by a single entity.

It refreshes me to see that contemporary commentators on language and usage are growing more nuanced and enlightened. Scocca bases his opinions on corpus research into actual usage, and he avoids dogmatic prescriptivism. Yes, he does tease some writers for their “poncy” Anglicized usage, but it’s done in good humor. If this same topic were covered a decade or two ago, I’m sure we’d get a different take: the guest would have insisted that there’s one right way to do it, and that those who deviate betray their illiteracy and ignorance. Next, the piece would have concluded with a cliched rant about sloppiness of writers nowadays, the failure of our schools, and the impending decline of civilization. That are what I call progress!

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