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Grammar nerd question
January 9, 2013 1:53 PM   Subscribe

Which is correct? a) "Led Zeppelin is a band" b) "Led Zeppelin are a band"

Initially I was confident that a) was correct because "Led Zeppelin" is singular, but I am uncomfortable with this answer because it becomes inconsistent when the plurality of the band name shifts – e.g., "The Turtles is a band" feels wrong, while "The Turtles are a band" feels right.

It seems like the choice of is vs. are determines if we are talking about the band as a unit or as individual members. E.g., "John Bonham and Jimmy Page are playing music" but "Led Zeppelin is playing music".

I also suspect the answer might have something to do with band names being proper nouns – my grammar knowledge is sparse and spotty, but if I recall, English grammarians grant proper nouns special privileges as a part of speech in some cases. Someone with better grammar skills than me: please, throw me a bone!
posted by deathpanels to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think it's always "___ is a band." Because a band is singular. That includes "The Turtles is a band."

When you're talking about multiple musicians, you would use "are," but you would never say "John Bonham and Jimmy Page are a band."
posted by chickenmagazine at 1:57 PM on January 9, 2013


This is a difference between American English and British English. Led Zeppelin are a band. Lynyrd Skynyrd is a band.

Both are correct.
posted by phunniemee at 1:57 PM on January 9, 2013 [38 favorites]


You are thinking about collective nouns.... so a) in this particular context.
posted by oceano at 1:57 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Phunnimee is right about US vs UK usage.

I agree that "The Turtles is a band" sounds weird (I'm American). When I worked at a newspaper we solved the weirdness problem by... rephrasing. Almost always. (That's how the pros do it!)
posted by purpleclover at 2:00 PM on January 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Phun is both right and wrong. Americans say Lynyrd Skynyrd is a band. The Brits say L.S. are a band. The usage depends on the speaker, not the nationality of the band members.
posted by yclipse at 2:03 PM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


Note, though, that American English uses 'are' for team names that are plural, but also for the Utah Jazz and Miami Heat (which I think are the two NBA teams whose names don't end in 's'--or is there a third?). However, it goes back to 'is' for teams in sports where team names aren't overwhelmingly plural nouns, so 'England is' rather than 'England are'.
posted by hoyland at 2:22 PM on January 9, 2013


I'm guessing phunniemee just picked a British band and an American band to illustrate her point, yclipse.

The rule, on this side of the Atlantic, anyway, is that collective nouns are treated as singular. The audience is heckling the comic, the class is having a spelling bee, etc.

I also agree with purpleclover; restructuring the sentence is an easy fix.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 2:24 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I note that Rolling Stone magazine (US edition) seems to have taken to the British approach: 'Rush have always been one of rock’s all-time great argument starters.', etc.

But they're inconsistent.
posted by DandyRandy at 2:42 PM on January 9, 2013


I think the right meta-answer, if you're doing this regularly rather than as a one-off thing, is to write a style guide that includes this situation and then follow what that says consistently. No one really cares, language is fluid, nothing is exactly proper. But standards, dammit, are important.

Unless you're Rolling Stone, apparently.
posted by jsturgill at 2:43 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also agreeing that it's a UK English versus US English thing.

"The Turtles is a band" sounds awkward, but it is grammatically correct in the US. Because they aren't actually turtles, any more than Star Wars are a movie.

Minor exception: if the band name does somehow incorporate the individuals playing, then it becomes plural. "The Syd Greenstein Players" are a band, because the players are referred to. They ARE players. It would be different for say, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They are a plural because they are turtles.
posted by gjc at 2:44 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you're writing for a particular publication, it depends on its style guide. At one point I was a copy editor for both Spin and Billboard, and one magazine would say "Radiohead is recording a new album" while the other would say "Radiohead are recording a new album." (Now I can't remember which was which. It was the '90s.)

It can also depend on whether the band name seems plural (like, say, The White Stripes) or seems singular (like Pavement). And it's also true that outside of the U.S., collective nouns are usually treated as plural.

So for the music-related website I currently edit for, we'll say "Wild Flag is going on tour" but "The New Pornographers are going back in the studio," as long as the copy is for the U.S. or Canada. If I'm editing copy for the U.K. or Australia, it'd be "Wild Flag are going on tour" and still "The New Pornographers are going back in the studio."

It's true that this can lead to awkwardness in some sentences, especially if we're talking about one band with a singular name and another band with a plural name. And most writers will naturally refer to all bands as if they're plural. I do a lot of subtle rewriting.
posted by lisa g at 2:49 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think you'd be hard-pressed to find examples of e.g. "The Turtles is a band" in American English. Plural names take a plural verb.

See this wikipedia entry.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:12 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sportswriters tend to have fun with this one as well.
posted by TTIKTDA at 5:01 PM on January 9, 2013


The sports comparison is an interesting one. Initially I was dead set with the collective singular thing, but come to think of it, as a Boston sports fan, I would never say, "The Celtics is playing the Heat tonight." So the collective singular thing itself must not determine whether or not its grammatical (coming from more of a linguistics perspective than a style and usage perspective.)
posted by mermily at 5:11 PM on January 9, 2013


But then I'd refer to an individual Celtics team member as "a Celtic," but wouldn't refer to an individual family member as "a family." Hmm....
posted by mermily at 5:17 PM on January 9, 2013


In actual US usage, it's almost always "The Beatles are a band" because Paul is a Beatle and John was a Beatle and Pete Best was almost a Beatle.

But "The Who is a band" because Pete Townshend isn't a Who.

Same with sports teams: the Celtics are a team, and Paul Pierce is a Celtic; the Miami Heat is a team, and LeBron James is a player for the Miami Heat.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:46 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


The sports comparison is an interesting one. Initially I was dead set with the collective singular thing, but come to think of it, as a Boston sports fan, I would never say, "The Celtics is playing the Heat tonight." So the collective singular thing itself must not determine whether or not its grammatical (coming from more of a linguistics perspective than a style and usage perspective.)

It's simply because the word sounds plural that we want to treat it as plural. I agree, "The Bulls are..." almost always happens. But you'd also probably never say "The team are playing..." Descriptively, it's correct. Prescriptively, it isn't. According to US usage anyway.

Was each member of The Ruttles a ruttle? I think it is Beatles canon that the individual members were not themselves beatles anymore than Joe Walsh is an eagle.
posted by gjc at 6:06 PM on January 9, 2013


Oh, I completely agree that a plural noun after a plural band name sounds better, but I recall a lot of intensely annoying conversations about whether the White Stripes were singular about 12 years ago (to date my cub reporting days...)
posted by purpleclover at 6:07 PM on January 9, 2013


Fun fact: "A Flock of Seagulls" is both an example of a collective noun and a band!
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 6:10 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


The answer is actually: Whatever your style guide says to use.

This is, on some level, like asking whether the Oxford comma is correct.
posted by klangklangston at 9:30 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


gjc, the number of "Who's Your Favorite Beatle?" questionnaires that have clogged up teen magazines through the decade suggest that, whatever the Beatles' preferred usage might have been, each one was a Beatle.

Agree, though, that in actual US usage, it would be "The Beatles are touring the US! The Liverpool band is scheduled for shows in..."

klangklangston, this tends to be a place where US copy editors defy the style sheet, because "The Beatles is playing at Madison Square Garden" just sounds demented.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:48 PM on January 9, 2013


Point taken. However, this is the point in the Oxford Comma Analogy where it is pointed out that in American English, it's a collective noun functioning as one body, and thus the meaning of "The Beatles are performing at Madison Square Garden" is consistent with the idea of George, Paul, John and Ringo all having separate sets, without each other.

(It's pretty much all pedantic nonsense. If I'm copy editing and there's not a clear guideline, I just pick one and stick with it.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:00 PM on January 9, 2013


I agree that it's a US/British thing. I'm British and whenever I watch football (soccer) on US TV, hearing one of the teams referred to as singular eg "Manchester United is playing well today" is like nails on a blackboard to me. I mean, there's 11 of them!

I would also say "The Beatles are my favourite band". Although I'm honestly not sure if I would maybe say "My favourite band is The Beatles".
posted by neilb449 at 11:53 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


You would say "My favorite band is the Beatles," assuming, of course, that they're your favorite band. "Band" is the subject that the verb "is" refers to; band is singular (collective) here.
posted by klangklangston at 1:29 AM on January 10, 2013


phunniemee: "This is a difference between American English and British English"

The difference in collective nouns is always presented this way but I still can't wrap my head around the "is" usage.

If I said to you "Do you like Lower Dens?" could you really reply, "Yeah, it's really good"?

Likewise, if I asked "How did x_team do in the game last night?", would it sound okay to reply "It did well until the last ten minutes"?

It just sounds so awkward. Bands and teams are made up of people - surely the reference is transitive and the collective noun should refer to "them"; i.e. a plural?
posted by turkeyphant at 3:02 AM on January 10, 2013


Yep, definitely one of those British/American differences, this. I say "Radiohead are my favourite band" or "Man Utd are annoying". My transatlantic chums would say "Radiohead is..." etc.

We (Brits) seem to consider the fact that these entities - groups, teams etc - are made up of several individuals when speaking or writing about them. We look at the members rather than the whole. There are five people in Radiohead. Radiohead are a band. Strictly speaking the American way seems more correct to me, but our way of doing it is so ingrained that saying "Radiohead IS a band" still grates on my ear, even after having lived in the States for years.
posted by Decani at 3:26 AM on January 10, 2013


A couple of sports steps further. Take the Chicago Bulls. Plural team name, so "The Bulls are playing well tonight" is perfectly okay. However, "Chicago is playing well tonight" is also okay in American English. It has to do with the noun in question being plural or not. As mentioned up thread, the Celtics are (evil).

On the other have, I've heard, increasingly, the Heat are/ the Magic are and so on. It seems to me, to some extent, that a good number of the divisions between British and American English are fading, possibly due to the ease of being exposed to other versions that the Internet presents. I believe I saw a post on the blue a while back about how previously isolated dialects and regionalisms had spread out of their traditional geographic boundaries due in part to the sharing and forwarding that is such a big part of social media.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:44 AM on January 10, 2013


Windows is shutting down.
posted by flabdablet at 5:00 AM on January 10, 2013


The difference in collective nouns is always presented this way but I still can't wrap my head around the "is" usage.

It just sounds so awkward. Bands and teams are made up of people - surely the reference is transitive and the collective noun should refer to "them"; i.e. a plural?


That's the problem. As a user of the American style, I don't understand why people would go through the bother of having collective nouns and still refer to them as plural. The whole point of a collective noun is to be able to refer to a group as one thing.

What about classic collectives? The pride of lions or the school of dolphins. Would UK usage be to refer to such things as "are"? IE, "the pride are eating their prey"?

Both sides have their illogical exceptions to the rule. It would be perfectly normal for an American to say "Google is changing their billing practices." Is and they? It's awful.
posted by gjc at 5:45 AM on January 10, 2013


The is/they example for "Google is changing their billing practices" could just as easily be an example of the Singular They, a practice that has been with English since the middle ages, but was beaten out of the language by a very stubborn prescriptivist schoolteacher who wasn't happy with what, admittedly a kludge of a solution to the lack of a good non gendered/numbered third person pronoun. It is perfectly acceptable and perfectly natural, and people whom it bothers are often the same sort of awful human beings who leave me pointing out the fact that their sort of prescriptivism is literally bullshit.
posted by TTIKTDA at 4:18 PM on January 10, 2013


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