Watching ESPN’s coverage of the England-Croatia European Cup
football soccer match yesterday, I was struck by an on-screen graphic announcing, “If results hold, England advance.” Jack Bell’s recent guest post on Not One-Off-Footballisms did not cover the grammatical Britishism of plural verbs for collective nouns, but to me it’s an even more significant development than announcers saying “boots” instead of “cleats” or “pitch” instead of “field.” After all, the announcers are Brits, but the graphic represents a corporate editorial decision by all-American ESPN.
Coincidentally, the National Basketball Association finals are currently being played between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat–apparently the first time in U.S. major sports history that a championship is being contested by two teams whose names are not plural. (There’s a fun fact for you!) The outstanding public radio show “On the Media” last week had a segment about the dilemma faced by copy editors (that’s what we call subeditors) writing headlines: do they go singular (American) or plural (British?).
“On the Media” host Bob Garfield had an exchange with Tom Scocca, the editor of the online sports magazine Deadspin, that shows the surprising passion this issue can provoke. (Note: The OED defines poncy as “Affected, pretentious, self-consciously refined or superior; overly fancy or elaborate; effeminate, homosexual.”)
SCOCCA: In Britain, there’s a longstanding habit of treating collective nouns, or these kind of mass nouns, as plurals. So in British English you would say, “The team are doing well,” and, therefore, in British English they don’t really care what they call their sports teams. And so, you have people say “Arsenal are the superior side in this match.”
GARFIELD: But the problem is, as you observed, if you use the British convention, you sound like a poncy–
SCOCCA: Rock critic, yeah. That’s a longstanding problem in writing or talking about rock music, because so many bands have these names that are singular to describe this collective unit that’s the band. And, you know, there’s a lot of Anglophilia in rock writing, and so there are people who will say things like, “Pavement are the most important band since Wire.”
GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] And how does that make you feel , when you run across – “Pavement are the greatest band since Wire?”
SCOCCA: Despite the fact that I might agree with the sentiment, the skin crawls on the back of my neck.
GARFIELD: And you basically want to find the critic and just kind of slap him around, come on –
SCOCCA: Yeah, give him a wedgie or something.
GARFIELD: You’ve got some examples illustrating the issue.
SCOCCA: Right. Sports Illustrated pretty consistently embraces the British usage, so their headline would be, “Heat Have Experienced Motivation to Win It All.”
SCOCCA: Yeah, extremely. “Have another crumpet, Sports Illustrated.”