Saturday, January 19, 2008

Here we go again, they vs. it

Permit me a moment of dissent and perhaps a little cynicism. The "should we use 'it' or 'they' when referring to entities" debate is frothing again, this time under the rhetoric that using "it" makes corporations and such seem so much less, well, less human.

I find no problem with that, and in fact take some comfort that the language has not yet succumbed to the spin of the PR-meisters in this case.

Andy Bechtel points out on his blog a question posed by a PR teacher at the University of Georgia, Karen Miller, on her blog: Wouldn't we be better off if reminded that a company really is "they" rather than "it"? That is, it seems to me that the grammar is teaching us to think incorrectly about what organizations really are.

The underlying meme here is to give a human face to that faceless corporation down the street. PR and advertising (now increasingly known as integrated marketing communications) have been trying to do it for decades. Kumbaya.

Thanks but no thanks. General Motors says it lost billions of dollars, and Dell acknowledges that it had a problem with computers bursting into flames. Yes, there will be idiomatic departures -- The Jaycees say they will donate ... (even there, while I can argue for "says it will," I'll grant the dissonance on the ear).*

If you want to suggest "they" is a more accurate description, I'd be more impressed if organizations would then let "them" speak freely about what goes on in "their" organization instead of insisting that "we speak with one voice."

I agree with Bechtel, John McIntyre and others that many shibboleths need close examination and ditching. But I also think language has a power and meaning, and too often these days we are too timid to assert that over the spin. In other words, I don't see this as a shibboleth; I think it has real linguistic value in demarking the limits of the true embodiment of personhood, and I'm not ready yet to just casually invest every Tom, Dick and Harry Inc. with it. I know this is a tough argument, but sometimes just because everyone tends to use it in casual conversation, as Bechtel notes, does not mean it should be abandoned.

McIntyre has an excellent recent post on this blurring, in this case of usage, but it carries on in the same logical vein. McIntyre also has, in an earlier post, commented on the use of "everyone ... their," which for several years I have cheerily accepted. But this is not the same as the corporate "they." Follow his link to Pinker's commentary, an excellent explanation of the idea of "everyone" as a variable and "they" as a bound variable, not as a subject-pronoun relationship.

*Having said that, if we want to go to the British system of plural usage throughout -- subject and verb -- then what the hey. At least then we are being intellectually consistent.

Labels: , , ,


At 5/10/08, 11:56 AM, Anonymous David M. Patt, CAE said...

This controversy isn't likely to end very soon. It's mentioned at and it is likely to continue for as long as people feel their words are understood.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home