I am writing a text in which I frequently refer to states and governments as actors. (They negotiate, decide, have preferences etc.). This make me wonder about the correct use of relative pronouns.

From what I've learned (I'm not a native speaker), "who" is reserved for persons and "which" for things. But does the former only include natural persons or also "person-like things", that is collective actors such as states and firms?

Here is an example:

The added leeway for national regulation improved the bargaining power of some states, [who|which] could now walk away from the bargaining table.

  • 1
    I'd use which for states ... but then, I also call dogs it rather than he or she. There are sometimes exceptions for things like this - please post a sample sentence so we know specifically what you have in mind.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 9:08

2 Answers 2


There used to be a difference between nation (the people) and the state (the land). Since the rise of the modern nation-state that difference has all but disappeared, it seems.

Note that the traditional state (ref. French état) was also sometimes used to indicate the person ruling it (Louis XIV famously announced l'état, c'est moi, the state is me). It was not uncommon to refer to the kings of, say, England or France as simply England or France. We still do the same when we use someone's title (which basically means they rule a piece of land) as their name: Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo. Of course we do not mean that the village of Wellington in Somerset went to Waterloo, but rather Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.

With that in mind, it is not all too strange to see people referring to nation-states when they probably mean the executive government of said nation state. It would probably make for tiring reading if you would want to discuss trade agreements between the negotiators acting on behalf of the government of the United States of America and the envoys negotiation on behalf of the president of the Russian Federation instead of an agreement between the USA and Russia.

  • These are very instructive observations. In the examples of your last paragraph, would you use "who" or "which" to refer to the United States and Russia (or their respective governments)? Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 9:36
  • I think either who or which could be seen as appropriate. Personally I think I would favor who because implicitly I'm talking about people, not the pieces of land that reach agreements.
    – oerkelens
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 11:40

When people are using "actor" in this sense, they mean "Something that acts on something else", ie that has an action on something else. In the same way that something that senses can be called a "sensor", something that acts upon something else can be called an "actor".

This is different to the most common use of the word which refers to a person engaged in theatrical/cinematic performance, and its usage seems to have increased greatly in recent years.

Because it's not referring to a person (a group of people is still not a person), you should use "which" rather than "who".

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