What pronoun should you use when referring to a company?
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 is that 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.”
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