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The Curious Corporate Who

by Charles Harrington Elster

Note: This article first appeared, in slightly different form, in the October-November 2013 issue of Copyediting.

In the late 1980s, William Safire, who wrote the column “On Language” for The New York Times Magazine for thirty years, gave “an eight-cylindered bloopie award to Chrysler and its chairman, Lee Iacocca, for the following ad: ‘Chrysler is the only American car maker who builds their convertibles from start to finish.’”

One error in that sentence is obvious: the plural pronoun their doesn’t agree with the singular subject Chrysler. It should properly be “Chrysler . . . builds its convertibles.” The other, related error is less obvious, at least to people who don’t edit for a living: Chrysler is not a who. It’s a that.

By the late 1990s I was seeing and hearing this blunder all over the place—in the pages of The New York Times and other reputable publications, on National Public Radio, and even at Rite Aid drugstore, where an announcer once intoned over the loudspeaker, “Rite Aid is the only drugstore who . . .”

I heard Colin Powell, when he was secretary of state, say, “We’re looking at those terrorist organizations who have the capacity . . . ” I heard Alan Greenspan, when he was chairman of the Federal Reserve, say, “This should affect the companies who do a lot of borrowing.”

To my amazement and chagrin I even found this eccentric who in that pinnacle of copyedited prose, The New Yorker: “You wouldn’t think so, however, if you consulted the Census Bureau and the National Endowment for the Arts, who, since 1982, have asked thousands of Americans questions about reading” (Caleb Crain, “Twilight of the Books,” December 24, 2007).

If you twisted my arm—really, really hard—I might concede that the NEA is a who, but the Census Bureau? C’mon.

This “corporate who,” as I began calling it, also caught the attention, back in the 1990s, of Bryan A. Garner, who—Bryan is definitely a who—in his 1998 Dictionary of Modern American Usage (the predecessor to Garner’s Modern American Usage and then Garner's Modern English Usage), spelled out the rules for relative pronouns: “Who is the relative pronoun for human beings (though that is also acceptable); that and which are the relative pronouns for anything other than humans, including entities created by humans. But writers too often forget this elementary point.” To illustrate that forgetfulness Garner gave two citations, one for institutions who from the Business Standard, the other for companies who from a 1984 book called What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.

That got me thinking. Could the rampant misuse of who for nonhumans have gotten its start as a bit of business jargon intended to personalize, or personify, the impersonal? William Safire suggested as much when he speculated that the copywriter of the Chrysler ad had chosen to use the personal who and their instead of the faceless that and its because “we’re one big happy family here at Chrysler, marvelously diverse and individualistic, and besides, if I tried to fiddle with anything the chairman said, I’d have a tailpipe wrapped around my neck.”

I also couldn’t help noticing that a preponderance of my own citations for the corporate who were business-related, e.g.: “Trade-reliant Asian economies who are banking on a pick-up in the United States” (Reuters); “Daimler-Chrysler and Ford, who sell lots of pickups and SUVs” (NPR’s “Marketplace”).

I also began to wonder, as I saw and heard who applied more and more to things, whether the language might be undergoing a profound shift in the centuries-old norms governing pronoun usage. If who could be wrested from its moorings as the relative pronoun for people, what dire pronominal drift might follow? Would a dark day come when people started worrying about things who go bump in the night?

Bill Walsh, a longtime copyeditor at The Washington Post, was one of the next usage watchers to sound the alarm about this trend. “I often see phrases like the countries who belong to the group or the companies who sell the product,” he wrote in his 2000 style guide Lapsing Into a Comma. “Unless you’re specifically referring to people, who should be changed to that.” In The Elephants of Style (2004), Walsh pronounced the corporate who “a common error” and added a nuance to his earlier ruling: “That should also be used in cases where a noun might refer either to inanimate entities or to people (the manufacturers, the distributors).”

Paul W. Lovinger, in The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style (2000), also weighed in from the editorial trenches. “Who suits only people,” he ruled. “Although organized entities, such as companies, unions, associations, and institutions, are made up of people, they are not people.”

So noted. But it could be argued that the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, which accorded corporations equal status with individuals, inadvertently legitimized the aberrant use of who for entities. Check in with Google News on any given day and you’ll get thousands of hits for companies who, corporations who, businesses who, institutions who, organizations who, countries who, schools who, churches who, hospitals who, and even a hundred or so for robots who, as in “Robots who hunt mutants in the name of protecting humanity” (Los Angeles Times).

What is going on here? Why have writers and educated speakers been flocking to the corporate who, and why are copyeditors letting them get away with it?

To try to answer those tricky questions, it’s helpful to know a bit about the history of relative pronouns. Bergen and Cornelia Evans provide this summary in their Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957): “As a relative pronoun who competes with that and which. . . . That has been the standard relative pronoun for about eight hundred years and can be used in speaking of persons, animals, or things. Four hundred years ago which became popular as a substitute for the relative that and was used for persons, animals, and things. [That’s why, in the King James Bible of 1611, the Lord’s Prayer begins, “Our Father which art in heaven.”] Three hundred years ago who also became popular as a relative. It was used in speaking of persons and animals but not of things. This left English with more relative pronouns than it has any use for.”

Which raises another set of questions: Could a superfluity of relative pronouns and the long-standing competition between them account for our tendency, every few hundred years or so, to allow one to invade the grammatical territory of another? And is the way I chose to frame that last sentence, giving a set of words the ability to perform an action, the crux of the problem? Are we for some reason—perhaps our own humanness—ineluctably drawn to personify the inanimate and personalize the impersonal?

Take a peek in the Oxford English Dictionary and you will find some interesting examples, dating from the late 16th century, of who used not only in literary personifications but also “in reference to an inanimate thing or things,” or to an antecedent that appears to denote or connote “a number of persons collectively” but that is still decidedly inanimate.

Here’s Shakespeare in Richard II: “Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven, who . . .” And again in Hamlet: “He’s loved of the distracted multitude, who . . .” Here’s Joseph Addison in the Spectator (1711): “This Authority of the Knight . . . has a very good Effect upon the Parish, who . . .” And here’s Oliver Goldsmith in his History of England (1771): “The Hanse-towns, who were then at war . . .” From that set of quotations you could conclude either that long-dead English writers are to blame for the current mishandling of who or that writers of English have long had an illicit love affair with personification.

Apparently the corporate who users reason that if an entity does something only a human being can do, it must do it as a who, a humanlike agent, and not as an impersonal that or which. For example, since cooperating is an action humans can perform but insentient entities can’t, the reasoning says it must be countries who cooperate rather than countries that cooperate. And since insentient entities can’t see, it must be “Analysis Research, who is looking for talented people” (actual radio ad). The problem with this reasoning—if it can be called reasoning rather than some kind of weird grammatical gravitational force—is that, anomalous citations in the OED notwithstanding, it flies in the face of several hundred years of standard usage and the consensus of a gazillion authorities.

“The users of English gradually restricted who until now it is used only in speaking of persons,” Bergen and Cornelia Evans assured us in 1957. “In this specialized area it has driven out the relative which, and this is now used only in speaking of animals or things. Who may in time drive out that as a relative referring to persons, but it has not yet done so.”

Could the Evanses have imagined, a half-century ago, that who would soon attempt to drive out that as a relative for things? That it would aspire to be The Who Who (That? Which?) Conquered the World?

If Rite Aid can now be “the only drugstore who,” you have to wonder what bizarre thing we will choose to pseudo-humanize next. Machines? Don’t laugh, because the unthinkable is already happening. A machine can’t think, at least in the way a human being does, but if we can imagine a machine that can think then of course it must be a who, not a that. Consider this citation from the Huffington Post: “Machines that calculate, and, projecting, machines who think.”

I think that if machines ever get that feisty with our grammatical norms, it’ll be high time for us editors to light out for the territory.

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Copyright (c) 2013 by Charles Harrington Elster.
All Rights Reserved. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.