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Here's the stretch of text that I'm struggling with:

The [company] team and the [client] team will formally introduce themselves and explain their roles to one another. The [company] team will share its preferred ways of working and map out the phases of the project for the [client] team to help it understand what will be expected of it.

Have I used the correct pronouns here? I'm used to using UK English, so it sounds much better for me to use plural pronouns (i.e. "share their preferred ways of working" and "help them to understand what will be expected of them". But I'm writing for a US audience. Does American English have a different approach to pronoun usage?

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3 Answers 3

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Americans are perfectly happy to use they and their as pronouns for collective nouns. What they do not do is use plural verbs with collective nouns. We would tend to say:

My family was fighting among themselves,

and not

My family were fighting among themselves,

or

My family was fighting among itself.

even though in the first formulation, family changes from singular to plural halfway through the sentence.

I don't have any formal grammar book stating this, but you can find some evidence for this from Google Ngrams here and here. When you set the corpus to American English, Google Ngrams finds hits for was fighting among themselves, but none for was fighting among itself, and some for the team shares their, but none for the team shares its.

Of course, you can also refer to the family or team with the pronoun its, and if you can consider the family or team as a singular entity in the sentence, that's generally what is done. But your sentences treat the team as a group of individuals, so I would tend to use the pronoun they.

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I find the use of "them" to refer to a company perfectly natural as a native speaker of American English. This is because a company is made up of many people, who collectively would take they as a pronoun. There are examples aplenty online:

  • You wake up one morning and see a peculiar email from Facebook informing you that they’ve updated their privacy policy - again. — HP

  • “Hooked on Phonics” corporate parent subsequently updated their privacy policy and said that they meant to update it earlier — US Congress House Committee

  • The company said they're excited to bring their brand to another Vermont community, so that they can continue to show the world what big things — WPTZ

  • In a statement, the motor company said they are adjusting the start of hybrid work arrangements for non-site dependent team members in North America, South America, and most International Market Groups to no earlier than January 2022. — WXYZ Detroit

The key thing to watch out for isn't pronouns. It's verb agreement with nouns: "the company has" not have in AmE.

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Your usage is correct. It is rare in the US (and Canada, to my knowledge) to refer to grammatically singular nouns in the plural, whether with generic or proper nouns. (Congress is debating, Google has released X, etc.)

The only common exception I can think of is "audience", where the verb will still agree with a singular subject "the audience is watching", but the pronoun "they" can refer to the individuals of the audience. This is especially common with the possessive pronoun, e.g., "The audience watched with awe, biting their nails as the act went on".

This is in part due to the unnatural sound of "it" when the object of the verb (nails) references the humanity of the subject (audience). This also relates to the use of singular "they", whereby we get "everyone in the audience was biting their nails" or even "the audience was biting their nails". "Their" acts as a gender-neutral pronoun. When "everyone" is used as the subject, using "they" is correct as the gender-neutral pronoun, where other authors may prefer "he" or "she". (The APA recommends against this since the 7th edition of the manual.) When "everyone" is not included and "audience" is the subject, the use of "they" does, indeed, refer to the group noun, bringing us back to this common exception to US aversion to plural reference to singular group nouns. (See parliament, group, team, family, and Congress for other examples.)

Keep in mind, though, that while this usage ("audience" + "they") is casually accepted, it will not fly in formal US English. (This is in reference to using plural verbs and pronouns with grammatically singular nouns. The use of singular "they" has gained academic acceptance and is the only singular third-person pronoun recommended by the APA when the gender of the person referred to is unknown or irrelevant.)

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  • There are other collective nouns which are used in this way. Particularly ones which can be seen as types of audience like "class" (in the academic sense) and "congregation" (in the religious sense). For instance "The class were bored with the subject and shuffled uneasily in their chairs" and "The charismatic preacher held the attention of the congregation, they gazed up at him, their faces showing rapt expressions"
    – BoldBen
    Jun 25, 2021 at 3:30

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