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What is the correct relative pronoun for "government"? Which of the following phrases is correct? I am writing for an American [English] audience.

The Queensland Government, who licenses several casinos, ...


The Queensland Government, which licenses several casinos, ...

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Funny to hear the Queensland Government, who licenses in the singular. I’d’ve expected that to’ve been the Queensland Government, who license in the plural. :) –  tchrist May 24 '12 at 0:08
Yet if I said, The Queensland Government licenses several... it clearly takes singular. –  Jim May 24 '12 at 4:48
Surely although a government is composed of people it can also be perceived as an abstract thing... –  john Sep 21 '12 at 15:13
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4 Answers

Well, the MW Dictionary of English Usage is clear on this matter:

"Who also refers to words for entities that consist of people" (p. 896).

The authors of the Dictionary also mention that in the past which was also used of persons but now "is usually limited to things" [emphasis mine - Alex B.].

However, if you treat an "entity that consists of people" as one unit, then which is more common than who, cf.

The committee, who are hoping to announce important changes, ....

The committee, which is elected at the annual meeting, ....

(examples from Swan 2005).

UPDATE: Here are some examples I've been able to find (British English)

It is exactly why people have been occupying St Paul’s to protest against the behaviour of the City elite and the government who is turning a blind eye. (The Times, 2011)

The result was ignored by the Government, who locked up Ms Suu Kyi and her lieutenants for decades. (The Times, 2012)

The only people with any authority in this matter are the Scottish government who have jurisdiction on the matter ...." (The Times, 2011)

'"The Government, which had not adequately consulted on the plans, he said, was 'mistaken' if it thought the changes would be cost-neutral".' (The Times, 2012)

The Lebanese Government, which is backed by Damascus, has adopted a policy of disassociation ...." (The Times, 2012)

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I wasn't sure if corporate entities such as governments or parliaments could be regarded as "entities that consist of people" in the same way as a committee or a cabinet. But in fact I found some clear examples of both pronouns, although I'd agree that which is more common and even strongly preferred. Anyway, I'll vote for this answer. –  z7sg Ѫ Jul 23 '12 at 0:05
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This is interesting. I found myself fishing through an MLA handbook to get my head around this question.

From what I can gather, tchrist is right. Whose is the genitive case for the name of an agency, be it the name of a company, such as Microsoft, or an institution such as Parliament or the government. So, if I've gotten my head around this right, correct examples should include:

"Microsoft, whose new licensing scheme has ..., ..."

"Parliament, whose recent actions have resulted ..., ..."

And so, similar should work for the Government of Queensland:

"The Queensland Government, who licenses ..., ..."

As to verb agreement, the singular verb seems to agree with the pronoun in this case. Consider the following:

"The State of California, who licenses ..., ..."

"The States of California, Alabama, and Texas, who license ..., ..."

I'll enjoy any feedback that further refines this train of thought.

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No, in American English, whose is O.K. for governments and organizations, but who is not. –  Peter Shor Jul 22 '12 at 20:22
@PeterShor This N-gram disagrees with you, clearly showing “government who” usage in American English. –  tchrist Jul 23 '12 at 0:08
@tchrist: Peter is correct - except I don't accept the implication that British English might be different on this specific point. Your NGram is irrelevant, since all it shows is that the largely unrelated who and whose happen to occur about equally often. This is the relevant NGram, clearly showing that Americans are much the same as Brits, overwhelmingly preferring government which over government who. –  FumbleFingers Jul 23 '12 at 2:50
This N-gram clearly agrees with me. The expressions found in American English are "the government which takes" and "(members of) the government who take". –  Peter Shor Sep 21 '12 at 15:19
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"Which" is the correct pronoun in American English because American speakers perceive most groups as single entities; British speakers usually perceive groups as collections of individuals and say, for example, "the team are..." and "the firm are...", but American speakers use "is" instead of "are". A "prescriptivist" will say that "who" is used only for people and not institutions, but many native English speakers don't agree with that, especially when they say things like "The company, whose main office is in New York,...". In the "The Queensland Government, who licenses several casinos,..." example, I'd say that using "who" is British English and plural, and that "licenses" should be "license".

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No no no. Whose is the genitive case relative pronoun for all agents, not just human ones. Nobody but nobody believes that you can only use whose with people. Anyway, government are people, so it doesn’t matter. –  tchrist May 24 '12 at 0:09
But in British English government is plural (like Parliament or Manchester United), hence Her Majesty's government have decided. The pronouns aren't inflected for number so that doesn't affect this answer, but it's important to know. –  John Lawler May 24 '12 at 0:10
@JohnLawler: Not always! –  Barrie England May 24 '12 at 6:46
@tchrist: "No no no"? Excuse me for having the temerity to disagree with your biases, but perhaps you will be so kind as to refrain from throwing stones in the future. You aren't trying to imitate Morgan Freeman's character in that Bruce Almighty film, are you? Please look at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, pp 959-960 under "who's, whose". It says that "since English is not blessed with a genitive form for that or which, whose--originally the genitive of what and who--has been used to supply the missing form since sometime in the 14th century. –  user21497 May 24 '12 at 15:42
@tchrist: It also says that the archetype of all prescriptivists, Lowth expressed his dislike for the usage in 1762, followed by Priestly in 1768, despite the latter's acknowledging that even the best writers used it for things as well as persons. It also points out that 67% of the teaching assistants in American universities "would mark whose wrong in a student's paper" when it was used for things. That contradicts your third sentence. If you can't discriminate between people (e.g., senators) and an institution (the Senate), how do you manage to think critically? You do speak critically. –  user21497 May 24 '12 at 15:45
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Okay, okay, native speaker of American English to the rescue, if belatedly!

The answer is "which", never "whose". Americans see governing bodies or sports teams as things, not as a person or persons. So, two example sentences:

The US Congress has held a meeting this morning to discuss Damascus.

The whole Boston Red Sox team is hosting a free beer night.

There. The final word.

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Wrong, totally wrong. Whose is not restricted to a person. It is the genitive relative pronoun for all possible antecedents. The glass whose edge is chipped will not survive. The flower whose bloom is wilted needs water now. –  tchrist Jul 23 '12 at 0:04
that rule only applies in cases of personfication, and only when it describes a part of a subject, not the example of the original poster. Tchrist, seems to me like you are hellbent on confusing a whole lot of non native speakers-my goal is to deal with the example given and AFTER they have mastered that build upon it. The best way to do that is to START WITH THE MOST COMMON FORMS OF SPEECH AND WORK YOUR WAY UP. They get that right, they'll be translating Shakespeare. –  Mary Jul 23 '12 at 22:41
You’re mislead, and wrong. Please stop propagating the falsehood. Whose is the genitive relative pronoun, and is used on objects. The OED sense 3 is: “In reference to a thing or things (inanimate or abstract). Originally the genitive of the neuter what (sense 7); in later use serving as the genitive of which (senses 7 and 8), and usually replaced by of which, except where the latter would produce an intolerably clumsy form.” Selected citations: 1602 Shaks. Ham. I. v. 15, ― I could a Tale vnfold, whose lightest word Would harrow vp thy soule. (continued) –  tchrist Jul 24 '12 at 0:24
(selected citations,continued)1632 Milton L’Allegro 73 ― Mountains on whose barren brest The labouring clouds do often rest. 1807 Southey Espriella’s Lett. (1814) II. 10 ― The clock, whose huge bell··may be heard five leagues over the plain. 1927 E. Bowen Hotel vi. 57 ― She looked down··and saw a little house, with a blue door whose colour delighted her. 1968 J. Lyons Introd. Theoretical Linguistics 55 ― Whether there are, or could be, two languages whose vocabularies are to no degree... 1981 I. McEwan Comfort of Strangers ix. 122 ― There were pictures whose context she understood immediately. –  tchrist Jul 24 '12 at 0:25
Mary, I seriously doubt that anyone will ever have "the final word" about English usage. You can label the last word you speak before you expire "the final word" and be correct that one time, however. Otherwise, someone will always be there to add another word. There is no "largest number" either: anyone can add 1 to any number and make it larger. –  user21497 Jul 24 '12 at 4:08
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protected by RegDwigнt Sep 21 '12 at 15:18

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