Episode 84: November 16, 2007
Grammar Girl here.
Aliza in Alaska recently asked whether she should use who or that to refer to a board of directors.
Today we're going to decide whether companies are people or things; in other words, whether you use the relative pronoun who or that when referring to an entity like a company or board of directors. I had to look this up the first time someone asked. For many years, before I became Grammar Girl and had to answer people's questions, I simply rewrote sentences to avoid having to figure this one out.
People Versus Entities
What confused me was that even though companies are entities, they're made up of people. But it turns out that this somewhat confusing fact is actually one of the keys to knowing which pronoun to use.
You see, a company, because it is just a legal entity, can't actually do much; it is the company’s people who typically take action. So although you might often see it written that a company laid off 1,000 people, to be precise it was actually the company's managers or the board of directors who laid off all those people. The board members might like you to think the big, bad amorphous company was to blame, but in the end it was people who made it happen.
So instead of letting those managers hide behind bad grammar, call them out! Use proper sentences like this one:
Today, the MegaCo directors, who just gave themselves a raise, laid off 1,000 factory workers.
Similarly, you would use the word they and not it to continue the paragraph:
Today, the MegaCo directors, who just laid off 1,000 factory workers, gave themselves a raise. They should be ashamed of themselves.
So there's one rule: when action, good or bad, is taken in a corporate environment, usually it is the people at the company doing the work, and if you need to use a pronoun you obviously refer to the people as who.
Nevertheless, it's true that sometimes you have to refer to a corporation. If a company is acquired, for example, and you want to add a bit of extra information, you might write:
MegaCo, the company that was named worst place to work in 2007, will be acquired by MondoCo in December.
Similarly, you would use the word it when continuing the paragraph:
MegaCo, the company that was named worst place to work in 2007, will be acquired by MondoCo in December. The CEO of MegaCo said the company is expected to sell for one billion dollars despite the fact that it was recently valued at 500 million dollars.
Not all companies are bad, but if it helps you remember the grammar rules to think of them as unfeeling, faceless entities, I give you permission to do so.
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 as he or she, so the only singular pronoun that remains 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.
It's important to note that this is an area where there is some disagreement. For example, a lawyer wrote in arguing that a corporation should be treated as a person because it is considered a “legal person” under the law, and you can certainly find common usage where people refer to corporations using pronouns such as who and they. I found it interesting that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives a lot of credit for the growing use of plural pronouns to advertising and PR people at large corporations trying to “present a more human and less monolithic face to the public.” Nevertheless, most grammarians lean in the direction of companies being nameless, faceless entities that should be treated as singular nouns and not personified.
A striking divergence from the idea of not personifying companies, though, is that it is fine to use whose as the possessive pronoun when you’re referring to a company, or a table for that matter. Because English doesn't have a possessive pronoun to go with that or which, we have to use whose, and for the most part, everyone just accepts the idea. For example, there is little objection to sentences such as
That is the company whose managers fled the country.
That is the table whose legs were damaged last week.
And remember that whose in this case is spelled w-h-o-s-e, not w-h-o-apostrophe-s.
So there you go! Companies are just legal entities and should be referred to as such, using words like that and it. It's the company’s people who do most of the work, and you already know that they should be referred to as who or they.
That's all. Thanks for listening.