They who?

This sentence from an Associated Press story on Page 1A Wednesday illustrates a pronoun antecedent problem.

The government still could pursue those claims in civil court, but they would have to compete with any other litigants also pursuing Lay’s estate.

The government, a singular noun, is referred to as they in the second clause of that sentence. The pronoun should be it. (Government is the antecedent, the noun to which the pronoun refers.)

But why does they sound OK to writers, editors and readers? It seems that we think of the government as multiple people, just as we think of a company. Using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun is not grammatically correct by the accepted rules, though, and those are the rules we play by.

[Another reading of that sentence leads me to think a reader could construe that they refers to claims. That violates accepted practice. In this case, the pronoun at the beginning of the second clause should refer to and agree with the subject of the first clause. Also, the government is one of the litigants.]

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.