“Wildcard” vs. “Wild Card”: Which Is Correct?

definitions of "wildcard" and "wild card" from the article
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When you toss a wild card onto the table, you’ve disrupted the entire game — usually for your own benefit. But the term wild card has a meaning beyond an actual card. Whether you’re a poker player, a sports fan, or a spontaneous, chaos-seeking person (we all have one in our friend group), you don’t want to misuse the term wild card. Or is it wildcard?

What Does "Wild Card" Mean?

Wild card (spelled with or without a space) is a sports idiom that means “an unpredictable factor.” 

In poker, where the term originated, a wild card can stand in for a card of any suit or value (as in the phrase “Jokers are wild.”) You’ll also see wild cards in the card game Uno™, which allow you to change the card color in the middle of the game.

  • When I play Five-Card Stud, I like to make Queens and Jokers the wild cards.
  • Just when I thought I was losing Uno, I drew the ultimate treasure — the Draw Four Wild Card.

Figurative Meaning of "Wild Card"

Figuratively, the term describes "an element or person that might disrupt everything," just like that Joker (or Uno wild card) you’ve got tucked in your hand — or that baseball team who wins the World Series but wasn’t supposed to be in the playoffs in the first place.

If anyone has ever called you a wild card, it means that you bring an unpredictable, somewhat spontaneous energy to a social gathering.

  • Tony can be a real wild card, so be ready for anything tonight.
  • Mrs. Rich watched Micah, the wild card of the class, for any disruptive behavior.
  • The real wild card of the project is the deadline, since it could be due any time.

Recently, the term wildcard person has referred to someone who can do many tasks, like a jack-of-all-trades. You may see this description in the context of hiring employees or balancing teamwork in the workplace. (Tony is a real wildcard person; he can debug code and build the new website himself.)

What Is a Wild Card in Sports?

Wild Card in sports refers to teams or players who did not win their divisions during the season, but otherwise qualify for postseason playoffs. They’re called Wild Card teams because they could potentially disrupt an entire postseason by beating higher-ranking teams for the top spots.

Depending on the sport, these teams might be the second or third-place teams in their division. They typically play other Wild Card teams for a place in the playoffs.

You can use Wild Card as an adjective or a noun when referring to teams in this postseason series, and it’s usually capitalized. For example:

  • In MLB history, seven Wild Card teams have gone on to win the entire World Series.
  • The Buccaneers are Wild Cards this year, but I think they’re going to take it in the Super Bowl.
  • Which Wild Card tennis player has gone on to win a championship?

"Wild Card" in Baseball

Wild card in baseball refers to the MLB Wild Card standings and the first round of the playoffs. 

The MLB Wild Card Series started in 1994 with one team per division (four total), then changed to include the top two teams (under the division winners) per division in 2012. 

In 2022, the rules changed once again to allow the top three qualifying-but-not-winning teams to play as Wild Cards in a three-game series, extending the postseason by 12 games. So if your team didn’t win their division, don’t worry — they’ve got a few more chances to clinch it.

"Wild Card" in Football

Like baseball, professional football has a Wild Card format — in fact, they were the first sport to implement the practice. The NFL introduced the Wild Card format in 1975. 

Like the MLB, the NFL Wild Card format has changed over the years. It’s gone from one Wild Card team per conference to three Wild Card teams in 1990. In 2002, the format changed again when the NFL split into four divisions; now there are two Wild Card teams per conference, for a total of eight.

"Wild Card" in Other Sports

Although the Wild Card round might be the most well-known in baseball, it’s got its place in other sports as well — though it may go by different names. 

Soccer, hockey, and basketball have adopted the format in recent years (though basketball calls it the Play-In Tournament and seeding positions). Tennis also allows one wild card entry into a tournament, usually chosen by the organizers of the tournament.

What Is a Wildcard in Computer Programming?

When a computer programmer uses the term wildcard, they’re referring to "a character that substitutes for other characters in a string of code." It’s used as a noun or adjective, though you may also see it as wild character

  • Common wildcard characters are % or * — characters that are unlikely to appear in other sequences. 
  • Wildcards act like a Joker in a winning poker hand: They replace another character to fill the same purpose.

Is It "Wild Card" or "Wildcard" (or "Wild-Card")?

Could the wildest thing about a wild card be its spelling? Not really. Unlike most compound words, leaving a space between wild and card is a matter of preference, not grammar.

  • Card games tend to use the two-word version (“The king of spades is the wild card”) since it’s literally referencing a card that is wild. But no one would kick you out of their poker game for spelling wild card as wildcard.
  • MLB and most professional sports leagues also spell it Wild Card (as in Wild Card Standings), but you’ll see plenty of headlines discussing the Wildcard Standings — probably because postseason is also a closed compound noun.
  • Computer programmers usually call it wildcard or wild character, not a wild card. So if you’re using it in this context, leave the space out.
  • Only use wild-card if it’s functioning as a compound adjective (as in “That’s some wild-card planning”).

If you’re calling someone a wild card or describing their wild-card personality, feel free to use any form you want (especially if you’re saying it out loud, since no one can hear a space or a hyphen).