It and them

Karen Miller Russell, who teaches public relations at the University of Georgia, poses an interesting question on her blog. Is it time to allow writers to refer to a company or organization as “they” instead of “it”?

Many of us speak of a company as “them” in casual conversation. “Did your hear about Apple? They’re releasing a new operating system.”

But grammar tells us that a company is a singular unit that takes a singular verb and a singular pronoun: “Apple is releasing a new version of its operating system.”

Yet Miller suggests that “they” is the better choice because it’s more accurate. She wants to know what editing types think — and so do I.



  1. Confusion reigns on copy desk everywhere. Grammarians and retired English teachers continue to point out how journalists don’t understand subject-verb agreement. Readers don’t notice.

  2. At the risk of muddying the water, I’d dissent a bit. Grammar tells us that nouns agree with verbs in number; it has one way of categorizing collectives on this side of the Atlantic (Boston whips New York) and another in Britain (Arsenal whip Chelsea).

    Both are perfectly grammatical, and I’m hesitant to say that either is more “accurate” because more logical (or something). I think there’s a tendency in j-education — judging from the textbooks, at least — to rationalize language arguments as matters of accuracy or logic, so we don’t have to admit that they’re actually rooted in bias, accident, tradition, or some other non-objective source.

    I agree with John; though some readers notice it really, really hard, the BrEnglish “Apple/they” pair skates unnoticed past most US readers. That and the lack of ambiguity in most sentences that use collectives as plurals put a lot of weight behind John McIntyre’s recent suggestion that we rethink how we enforce some of the concord rules.

    The General-Semantics folks did make some noise a while back about the syntactic evil of attributing singular actions to collective entities, but I don’t think it was ever taken seriously outside that circle.

    Tnx for the link to the blog. Is she going to show up for the editing breakfast next year?

  3. Thank you both for the comments. Dissent is welcome.

    FEV, I would love for some of our PR friends to come to the editing breakfast. Maybe they already do.

    For those wondering what that gathering is, the annual Breakfast of Editing Champions is a part of a conference of journalism professors. Editing types get together to share teaching tips and discuss trends in the profession. It’s my favorite part of the AEJMC conference. Here’s a recap of one breakfast:

  4. I’ll dissent. While there will be idiomatic constructions allowing for the plural, (the Jaycees say they will …), I think we should largely stick with the organization-singular (or adopt the British all-plural). Personally, I think the “they” use is as much as anything from PR and advertising spin to try to give their organizations a warm, fuzzy feel.

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