Who are playing?

The Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers are playing in the Super Bowl this weekend. It’s pretty clear that the “are” is correct in that sentence. But what if you’re just talking about one team?

The Kansas City Chiefs are playing in the Super Bowl this weekend.

All right, sounds good. Now, what if you substitute “team” for the team’s name?

The team are playing in the Super Bowl this weekend.

Hmm 🤔

Team names are the perfect opportunity to talk about collective nouns, which are used to refer to a group of people or things. And since you can talk about a group as a whole or talk about the individual actors within a group, there is no “one size fits all” rule for subject-verb agreement.

Here’s a rule to follow, though: If the group is acting as a unit, use singular verbs.

Each couple is bringing a casserole to the party.

But if the members of the group are acting independently, use plural verbs.

The couple were married for five years before they decided to divorce.

So, since we’re referring to the team as a unit playing in the Super Bowl, we can say, “The team is playing in the Super Bowl this weekend.”

And yes, it’s still correct to say, “The San Francisco 49ers are playing in the Super Bowl this weekend.”

When referring to a team as a collective unit, use singular verbs and pronouns: "The team is working to improve its penalty rate." Team names, however, take plural verbs: "The Kansas City Royals are on track to go to the World Series again."

Why? Honestly, it’s about what’s more pleasing to the ear, and team names are typically plural in construction. Other collective nouns that are not plural in construction take singular verbs, as in, “Panic! at the Disco is playing at the Staples Center.”

Oh, and if you thought this was the only way we could connect football and writing, you were wrong. If you listen to the refs this weekend, you’ll likely hear a dangling modifier, you might see a few en dashes and you’ll definitely see some Roman numerals.

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