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Is GM an “it” or a “they”?

Q: Can you write on whether a company should be referred to as “it” or “they” when writing in the third person? Similarly, should a company’s name get a plural or singular verb? Does it depend on if the proper name appears singular or plural?

A: As we said in our recent post about the corporate “we,” a company generally refers to itself in the first person plural, with the pronouns “we,” “us,” “our,” and “ourselves.”

But when somebody else writes or speaks about a company, the third person is used. And from a grammatical point of view, the singular “it” is more appropriate than the plural “they.”

We’re taking the restrictive American view here, because the word “company” is a singular noun and so is a corporate name—even if it’s plural in form, like Acme Industries or Widget Services or Smith & Son. The company is an “it,” not a “they.”

However, it’s not unusual for people to refer to a company as “they,” especially in speech.

This may be because they’re thinking of it in terms of the people who work there. As in, “I called the company and they gave me a credit” or “The insurance company says it’s not their responsibility.”

This usage is understandable in casual writing or speech. After all, when you make contact with a company, you’re speaking with a person, not an “it.”

And when the person’s gender is irrelevant, the default pronoun is often “they,” as we wrote in a 2017 post.

Occasionally this casual usage is found even in published writing that’s informal and addresses the reader personally.

A case in point, from an article that ran in Forbes Magazine last March: “Here are five signs your company values you—and five signs they don’t!” The pronouns “they” and “their” are used throughout in reference to “your company,” and the article is written in a conversational tone.

So far we’ve been speaking of American English. The picture is very different in the UK, where a company is more likely to be a “they” than an “it,” even in published writing.

In British English, “company” (like “firm,” “committee,” “government,” “cabinet,” and many other words) is regarded as a collective noun that’s singular in form but can be treated as plural. So you’ll find both singular and plural references to companies in British English—often in the same news story.

These snippets are from an article in the Daily Post, a newspaper in North Wales (note the pronouns “it” and “they”): “Sainsbury’s said it was ‘reviewing’ proposals” … “Sainsbury’s said they will now work to find an alternative.”

And these are from a report in the Hull Daily Mail (note the verbs “is” and “are”):  “BP is attempting to boost its brand” … “BP are supporting a regime.”

Jeremy Butterfield discusses this subject in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.):

“In British English it is in order to use either a plural verb or a singular verb after most collective nouns, so long as attendant pronouns are made to follow suit.”

Butterfield uses the examples “when the jury retires to consider its verdict” and “when the jury retire to consider their verdict.”

This principle, he adds, “applies to all the main collectives like army, audience, clan, committee, company, court, crew, folk, government, group, herd.”

In British English, he says, if the term is considered as a unit, the verbs and accompanying pronouns are singular. But if the members of the group are thought of as individuals, plural verbs and pronouns are appropriate.

“By contrast,” Butterfield says, “in American English the choice is much more restricted. For such words the following verb and any attendant pronouns are usually in the singular.”

However, The Gregg Reference Manual, an American guide for business writing, is not as restrictive as more general American usage guides. It has this to say:

“Organizational names may be treated as either singular or plural. Ordinarily, treat the name as singular unless you wish to emphasize the individuals who make up the organization; in that case, use the plural.”

Gregg uses these examples: “Brooks & Rice has lost its lease. It is now looking for a new location.” …. “Brooks & Rice have lost their lease. They are now looking for ….”

We wonder whether those plural examples would sound natural to American ears if the company didn’t have a compound name (“Brooks & Rice”).

Only in the UK, we think, would someone write, “Acme have lost their lease. They are now looking for a new headquarters.”

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