Episode 351: January 10, 2013
by Mignon Fogarty
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I’m often asked questions about what pronoun you should use when you’re writing about a company or a group such as a board of directors. Is it a company who makes jelly beans or is it a company that makes jelly beans, and was it the board of directors who voted against puce jelly beans or the board of directors that voted against puce jelly beans?
People Versus Entities
I believe the thing that confuses people about which pronoun to use isthat even though companies are entities, they're made up of people, but separating those concepts can help you figure out which word to use.
We talk about companies doing things all the time. When I look at today’s news, I see that General Motors will hire 1,000 people for a technology center near Atlanta and Ford doubled the dividend it's going to pay on its stock. Although companies are just legal entities and it’s the people who work at the companies who take all the actions, to say the company did something is a form of shorthand because it would get cumbersome to always have to say something like “The HR staff at General Motors will hire 1,000 people,” and “The directors at Ford decided to double the dividend.”
Yet, although we use shorthand to treat companies as though they can take action, we don’t treat them as people when we have to choose a pronoun. The correct words to use when referring to a company are “that” or “it,” not “who” or “they.”
United Helium, the company that always had a bouncy house on hand for executives, will be acquired by Gravity Corp. in January. It will be forced to give up this practice under new management.
If it helps you to remember which pronoun to use, remind yourself that companies don’t really take action, it’s the people at companies who take action. Use “who” and “they” when you refer to people, but not legal entities.
You can rewrite your sentences to name the people if it doesn’t become awkward, or if you have trouble remembering the rule, you can often rewrite the sentence to avoid the problem. For example, you could get rid of both pronouns by writing “United Helium will be acquired by Gravity Corp. in January. Under new management, the company will no longer have a bouncy house on hand for executives.”
Another way to think of this is that “corporation” and “board” are collective nouns, meaning they are nouns that describe a group, just like “orchestra,” “team,” and “family.” In the United States, collective nouns are usually treated as singular. It would be silly to refer to the corporation with the singular pronouns “he” or “she,” so the better choice is “it.”
It is more complicated in Britain, where collective nouns are usually treated as plural, but then I think it makes sense to fall back on the idea that corporations and boards are entities and can’t take action without people.
Remember, even though you shouldn’t use “who” to refer to a company, just as I said last week in my article about “who” versus “that” for people—that you use “whose” to refer to people or things, such as a table whose legs are broken—it is proper to use “whose” for a company, just as you would for that table.
United Helium, whose bouncy houses were legendary, is being acquired by Gravity Corp. in January.
Can a Book “Say” Something?
As a final aside, this topic reminded me of another question about an inanimate object taking action that has come up a few times over the years. On occasion, someone will complain that a book can’t say anything.
For example, if I write that the AP Stylebook says you should refer to a company as “it,” I’ll get someone responding that books don’t speak; therefore, I should write that the book states that you should refer to a company as “it” rather than the book says such a thing.
It’s actually a pretty logical statement, but English is not such a logical language. I couldn’t find this question addressed in the style guides I typically check, but the Oxford English Dictionary is unusually clear. I often find that the OED doesn’t cover usage questions, but the entry for the verb “say” specifically addresses whether the word can be used for situations other than speaking, and the OED says it can, both in a little note in the “signification” section at the beginning of the entry and in one of the definitions. For example, the OED gives this quotation from Faulkner’s book As I Lay Dying: The clock said twenty past twelve. (1)
So there you have it! Companies are just legal entities and should be referred to as such, using pronouns like “that” and “it.” If you want to use “who” or “they,” refer to the people doing the company’s work.
1. “say, v.1” Oxford English Dictionary, online version. December 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/171590 (accessed January 10, 2013).
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