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Heat and Thunder in the NBA Finals: A Grammatical Nightmare

Why do the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder sound so odd? Most sports teams—the Bulls, the Knicks, the Lakers, the Celtics—are ordinary plurals. However, the Heat and the Thunder are mass nouns; they are unquantifiable. You cannot have five thunders or three heats, even though there are 12 players on a roster.

As a contributor to Deadspin recently recounted, this is causing a nightmare (or nightmares?) for sports writers across the country. Are these team names plural or singular? 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.”

So what to do about the NBA finals? Should we say: “The Heat beat the Thunder.” Or “The Heat beats the Thunder”? What convention do you think sports writers should use?

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