Legal Writing Tip: For Grammar Purposes, Companies Are Not People

We’ve all said things like: “I know Apple is coming out with a new iPhone because I saw it on their website.” Referring to a company like Apple as a “they,” rather than an “it,” is probably okay in speech, but it’s grammatically incorrect. Yet using the wrong pronoun for a company, institution or group like a board of trustees, team or orchestra (known as collective nouns) is a writing mistake I see all the time.

Admittedly, this is confusing because companies are made up of people and they do take action. But despite the ruling in Citizens United (lawyer inside joke), companies are not people for grammar purposes. Instead, for entities, use that, which or it – save who or they for people.

Wrong:
A company who makes widgets
Correct:
A company that makes widgets

Wrong:
The board of trustees who voted for layoffs
Correct:
The board of trustees that voted for layoffs

Wrong:
Acme Coffee is closing and they will declare bankruptcy.
Correct:
Acme Coffee is closing and it will declare bankruptcy.

Wrong:
City Sports Club is the best in town. They have more than 500 members.
Correct:
City Sports Club is the best in town. It has more than 500 members.

Wrong:
This mall owner has each store sign their lease yearly.
Correct:
This mall owner has each store sign its lease yearly.
Correct:
This mall owner has all stores sign their leases yearly.

It is acceptable, however, to use whose as the possessive pronoun:
That’s the orchestra whose members went on strike.

Also, remember that the opposite rule holds true: for people, use who, not that. As in, “For those of us who knit for kids…” If you’re unsure how to reference an entity, rephrase the sentence or use words like “the company” instead of a pronoun.

leslie-gordon