Welcome to #WritingWednesday, where I talk about ways to improve your copywriting.
In this inaugural post, I address one of my biggest pet peeves: mistakenly referring to a business as some unquantifiable they, rather than a proper it.
It sounds so conspiratorial – who are they? Do you mean a business’s management team? A restaurant’s chefs? If that’s the case, by all means, use they.
But in most cases, to refer to a business as an entity, you should use it.
To all the Mitt Romneys out there, I realize that in America, “corporations are people, my friend.” But even to accept that premise, a corporation is a single entity, making it “a person,” not a plural entity of “people” (although it’s comprised of people).
Indeed, it’s common parlance to hear something like, “I only go to McDonald’s because I like their fries.” But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s right – certainly not when you’re writing for business about business.
To illustrate the point, I visited the New York Times‘s business section online to grab an example from today’s news. Emphasis added is mine:
Deutsche Bank had said that it would no longer finance so-called mountaintop removal projects, which involve extracting coal from the surface of mountains, often leaving large gashes in the landscape. But its public policy stopped short of the commitment to a broad retreat that many of the other large banks had made.
In the same paragraph was this sentence:
Other large banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, revised their policies to reflect a broader pullback from coal mining.
Keep in mind that because JPMorgan and BOA are grouped together (making the subject plural), they is the proper word.
It all begs the question – why is it so common that we call businesses “they,” anyway?
I can think of three reasons. The first is that in business, people take all the actions. When Deutsche Bank decided it wouldn’t finance mountaintop removals, the move was likely by direction of the board or a company officer. However, because the decision-maker is not specified, and the company is referred to in the abstract, the “it rule” still applies.
The same article provides an example where the people are specified, calling for “they”:
Last week, six senior members of Deutsche Bank’s metals and mining investment banking team, which was responsible for overseeing deals in the coal industry, said they were decamping for Jefferies, a smaller, scrappy New York investment bank…
Another underlying cause is that in order to sound more friendly and approachable, companies often talk about themselves using the inclusive we. Watch a few commercials, and you’ll almost certainly hear, “At Company X, we believe…” I’ve certainly written that way about my own clients for years. It’s an effort to humanize that which isn’t human – a brand.
Finally, a sometimes cited reason for the it/they conundrum is a difference in British English and American English. Several sites I found claimed that it’s more common in the Queen’s English to refer to a corporation as they.
However, after spending just a few clicks on bbc.co.uk, dailymail.co.uk, and telegraph.co.uk, it’s clear that all three news outlets refer to a business as a singular it.
Still, it made me think back to that iconic Frankie Goes to Hollywood t-shirt:
Alluding to the song “Relax,” the 1984 shirt caused confusion among American fans who didn’t understand why Frankie Say Relax, rather than Frankie Says Relax. But Frankie wasn’t a guy; it was the band. None of the British band’s members were named Frankie, either. So maybe that British/American explanation has some merit.
Whatever the reason, Charles Ave Say A Business Is An It, Not a They.