In using a title for a particular function of a person (for example, "supplier", "seller", "buyer", "exporter"), is it proper to use the word "it" and "that" and "itself", instead of "he or she" and "who" when referring to the function?


  • The supplier will respond after it has received a communication.
  • A seller that is interested will follow up the transaction.
  • The buyer itself may take on the responsibilty.
  • The exporter must disclose its supply capacity.

2 Answers 2


When supplier, etc. refers to a person use he, she, who, etc. Otherwise, use it, that, etc. In some cases where it's unknown, you might be well off with they, their, etc., but this might not pass muster with some traditionalists.

  • Thank you, Noah. In the manner I will be using the terms ("supplier" for example), they will not be gender-specific. They particularly refer to functions or roles. I appreciate your suggestion to pluralize them, but that may not fit well on how I would want the statements, where they are used, to be understood.
    – Mart
    Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 13:40
  • 2
    But if the words refer to functions or roles, they refer to people's functions or roles; or those of organisations staffed by people. It sounds really odd to use the impersonal that (and it).
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 13:48

Let’s take that first. That can introduce a relative clause, regardless of whether the antecedent is human or not, when the relative clause defines the antecedent. Such clauses are variously called ‘defining, ‘restrictive’ or ‘integrated’. In the sentence ‘A seller that is interested will follow up the transaction’, ‘that is interested’ tells us what kind of seller will follow up the transaction, and so that is permissible. Who may be also be used.

Whether you use it to refer to ‘supplier’, 'buyer' and 'exporter' depends on how you regard them If you see them as some kind of abstraction, then it might be possible. If, as seems much more likely, you see them as predominantly human, then it won’t do. You then have to choose from he, she and they. There are obvious difficulties with the first two if you don’t know if the supplier is male or female. In many cases, they can refer to a singular antecedent, but it is a little awkward in your examples. The best solution might be to make supplier, buyer and exporter plural, so that you get the sentences:

The suppliers will respond after they have received a communication.

The buyers themselves may take on the responsibility.

The exporters must disclose their supply capacity.

  • Thank you very much, Barrie England. I very much appreciate the comprehensive manner you presented the explanation. I feel much better now with my use of "that" after reading your explanation of its usage. I still have problem, however, with the "it". In the use of the title "supplier" for example, I will use it with reference to a function or role. I feel that it will be awkward for me to pluralize it as I would mean it to refer to a single entity. The role can be acted out by an individual human being or by a single non-human entity such as a corporation.
    – Mart
    Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 13:59
  • The use of it in such a context would be hard to justify. Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 14:06
  • Your first sentence is ungrammatical due to a sequence-of-tense error: it must be receive, not *received. I realize this was in the original, but thought it worth mentioning.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 19:37
  • @tchrist. Not where I live. Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 19:54
  • @BarrieEngland You are right: I didn’t see the have.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 19:55

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