Logic, Grammar and Sports Reports

Exploring my new laptop the other night, I looked up the sports app to find out more details of my team’s performance on Sunday.  It looked like this:

ImageNow, depending on where you are in the world you will find the headline either totally natural or very strange.

“Swansea wins…”  Yes, ok, it’s a singular noun and therefore a singular verb, but for anyone in the UK it will jar.  Here we say “Swansea [or whoever] win”.  And it is odd to see the phrase “Swansea doubled its lead”, as opposed to “their”.  The idea is that we are talking about the team, as represented by eleven players – in other words, people).  The same oddity is seen in this report with “Sunderland, which only [recently] secured its place in the top flight…”: despite the accurate idiom of the final phrase, the “which” here is particularly odd, as it removes the idea of people altogether – British people would be bound to say “who”.  One could imagine a sentence like “Sunderland, which has the most beautiful beaches in Europe” (ok, a slight exaggeration), but that clearly refers to the city and geographical entity that is Sunderland.

Obviously (from the use of the phrase “soccer match”) this is an American site.  That is not a criticism – I know that in Australia too they take this extremely grammatical approach to sports reports.  So the Australian press will report that “England collapses”, which to us here looks more like a political headline from wartime than a cricket headline. Saying this reminds me that the final straw in making me give up umpiring squash was a new rule, instigated by Australia, that the opposite of “No let” was no longer to be “Let” or “Let ball” but “Yes let”.

This grammatical logic also appears in other languages like French, where there is a strict need to make words agree in terms of number – so they would say “La France a gagné”, using the singular.  It would be impossible to use the plural form of the verb, parallel to the UK English method. In my blog on the French language I stress how important this is in French (or Italian, etc). In other words, I’m very much aware that the British way of expressing this is actually very much in a minority – even though I think it is the natural and sensible way to do things. To quote a headline I read two minutes ago: “Italy take a chance on Cassani, but France say ‘non’ to Nasri”. And I guess this shows why we do it this way: if it were a politician being elected it might be “Italy takes a chance…”, but here there is a kind of code that the (strictly) ungrammatical form indicates that we are not dealing with the country, but with a small group of sportsmen who represent the country.

Anyway, I was glad of the Bing update, and shall no doubt continue to use the site.  But here’s the odd thing: there is such a massive strangeness about the grammar that it really gets in the way of the content. That is, you are immediately aware that it’s being produced far away, in language that is a little strange, that you feel an emotional distance from the report, too.  And if there’s one thing you need in sports reports, it’s emotional closeness!


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