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September 28th, 2005

Are companies it or they? / what about bands?

by Barbara Wallraff

Kathie Stearns, of Madison, Wis., writes: “When writing reports or letters, my boss refers to a company as ‘it.’ I say the correct pronoun is ‘they.’ My logic is that companies are made up of people, not bricks and mortar. Who is correct?”

Dear Kathie: I admire you for wanting to put people first, but unfortunately, when you do, you’re at odds with our language -- at least as it’s spoken on this continent. (What I say to Louis, below, about British English applies to companies as well as bands.) “Company” is a singular noun. So the pronoun that stands in for “company” should be singular too -- which is to say the right pronoun is “it.”

In fact, if you consider certain implications of calling a company “they,” I’ll bet you’ll end up preferring to write “it.” If you use “they,” a plural pronoun, then, logically, you should also use a plural verb, as in “The company are considering a name change because they have a new focus ...” That’s peculiar. “The company is considering ... because it has ...” sounds better, no? Even companies whose names are plural, such as the Coreland Companies, of Tustin, Calif., and the Carlisle Companies, of Charlotte, N.C., tend to refer to themselves in print using singular verbs and “it.”

Nonetheless, whenever “they” -- people, rather than the institution -- are unquestionably what you’re writing about, you should feel free to change “the company” to “the company’s employees” or “company executives” or whoever you mean. Then a plural verb and plural pronouns will be both logical and grammatical -- as in “It’s good to hear that the company’s employees want their writing to reflect well on their employer.”

Louis Sullivan, of Detroit, writes: “I read tons of music reviews. When describing a band, many times the reviewer will refer to it using a plural verb form. I notice this more in reviews from the U.K. than in ones from the U.S. Which is correct: ‘Coldplay are going to make another record’ or ‘Coldplay is going to make another record’?”

Dear Louis: Never mind what I just told Kathie. In American English, bands are a special case. Who would say “The Beatles is only a fond memory, but the Rolling Stones is still going strong”? Nobody, I hope. But please note that those band names are plural: BeatleS and Rolling StoneS. When the band’s name is singular (or indeterminate), like Coldplay (or, say, Phish), then it takes a singular verb: “Coldplay has just released a new record, and it’s hot.” “Phish was hugely popular in its day.”

As you’ve noticed in reading reviews, however, British English follows different rules. The British are less strict about what’s an “it,” what’s a “they,” what takes a singular verb and what takes a plural one. Canadian English draws on both traditions. At least, the Canadian newspaper and magazine citations I found online read “Coldplay are” but “Phish was.”

The rules of grammar (and spelling and punctuation) are important, for all kinds of reasons. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that the rules vary from place to place. No particular set of rules is necessarily better than the others. But failing to follow the local rules tends to make you sound like a foreigner -- surely not what most of us are trying to do.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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