Plurals

Q. I am wondering if you could clarify the proper usage associated with names of sports teams and other such organizations where the name does not clearly end in a plural form. I offer as examples the NBA’s Miami Heat and Orlando Magic or the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. I think the names ought to be considered plural—for example, “The Tampa Bay Lightning have won five of their last six games against the Washington Capitals.” On page D1 of the Washington Post from November 15, 2003, in contrast, a story began with the following sentence: “The Miami Heat seemed to do everything it could to hand Friday night’s game to Washington.” . . . Perhaps the best solution is just to use the city name in such cases.

A. Your objection to the sentence in the Washington Post seems reasonable. Most NBA and NHL teams have plural names. Moreover, it is in the nature of sports that these teams are discussed in opposition to each other. It does seem odd to have to treat one team as a plural and another as singular, especially in the same context. When it is not practical or desirable to use just the city name (Washington hopes to forget the last two seasons; Miami is likewise hoping for a fresh perspective), I would be inclined to make an exception for singular team names. Such an exception—though much less common in American than in British English—is more or less sanctioned by the usage note in American Heritage (4th ed., 2000, s.v. “collective noun”), which notes that “a collective noun [also called “mass noun” or “noncount noun”] . . . takes a plural verb when it refers to the members of the group considered as individuals, as in My family are always fighting among themselves.” See paragraph 5.8 in CMOS for more on this subject.