Wednesday, January 20, 2010

With malice toward 'none'

Not to carp and cavil and kvetch, but I have been telling you repeatedly that none is a Janus pronoun. It swings both ways. It is either singular or plural, depending on context. It has done no one any harm. Yet journalists have been brainwashed to disrespect it by treating it always as a singular, as in this awkward sentence from this morning’s Baltimore Sun:

None of the omissions, additions or minor errors on the bids affects the price, quantity, quality or delivery of the project, Huddles said.

Yes, you can reason that the intent is to stress that not one omission, addition, or error affects any aspect of the project. But a reader maneuvering through that cloud of plurals is likelier to think that not any is the sense, which would call for a plural verb.

If being hectored by an unemployed copy editor sitting in his basement at eight o’clock in the morning is less than persuasive, there are other authorities to heed.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that none derives from the Old English nan, which was “inflected for both singular and plural” and “has never existed in the singular only.”

Lindley Murray — Lindley Murray!, the eighteenth-century prescriptivist grammarian who saddled us with the notion that they must not be used with everyone* — wrote, “None is used in both numbers,” though the plural sense troubled him. H.W. Fowler of blessed memory wrote of none in 1926, “It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is sing. only & must at all costs be followed by sing. verbs &c; the OED explicitly states that pl. construction is commoner.” Bryan Garner says that none is “is the less common way, particularly in educated speech, and it therefore sounds somewhat stilted.”

Even the Associated Press Stylebook grudgingly concedes, in a rare burst of intelligence, that it is permissible to use none in a plural sense.

On this point the prescriptivists and the descriptivists are united, and yet the erroneous notion persists. If you were taught to use none only as a singular, perhaps you could write to your old journalism school and demand a refund of your tuition.

*For an enlightening discussion of singular they, consult this Language Log post. We’ll return to this battle another day.


  1. Thank you very much for this lesson, John.

    Then... is it so OK to say:

    "None of them is coming.", and
    "None of them are coming." ?

    (My mother tongue is Spanish, and I had to learn English at school. Sometimes I don't feel sure about some things like this one. Thank you!)

  2. Either of those sentences is perfectly acceptable, depending on which emphasis you wish to use.


    By the way... the same is for Spanish language; we can use either form, just for the same reason you've mentioned: "emphasis".

    Thank you, your nurturing advice is making me so happy.

  4. If none could be read as "not any," wouldn't it be spelled "nany"?

    And, taking a page from the descriptivist screed, if modern usage has gradually transmogrified "none" into the meaning "not one," (which it seems usage has done) hadn't we ought to follow the natural evolution of the language and recognize that the dusty sources are-ahem--out of date?

    Or do I hear descriptivism defending--ho ho!--a rule to be followed slavishly?

  5. I'm not certain how closely Illhavenoneofit read the post. None has always had singular and plural senses, and, as Bryan Garner indicates in the third edition of , the plural sense continues to dominate. The practice of limiting the pronoun exclusively to the singular is a fetish of journalists, whose many non-idiomatic usages I do not recommend holding up as examples.

  6. "None of the omissions, additions or minor errors on the bids affects the price, quantity, quality or delivery of the project, Huddles said."

    I'd read that as "Not one of the omissions, additions or minor errors affects the price...."

    If I wanted to write "not any," I'd go with, "Not any omission, addition or minor error affects the price...." Or, "Not any of the ommissions, additions or minor errors affects the price...." "Not any" seems as singular as "not one."

    To me, none is singular until proved plurual. "None of the partyers is paired up" wouldn't make sense. Better, "none of the partyers are paired up."

    Hmmm. My ear prefers "None of the horses are flying" over "None of the horses is flying." Whichever way you go will seem wrong to some people. English is a second language even to people who know no other language.

  7. After reading the comments, I prefer none of the above.

  8. The solution for persuasive hectoring then is to move your operation to a spare upstairs bedroom or even by the living room window. The light of day and especially mid-winter will do wonders.


  9. Where did this notion that descriptivists don't believe in *any* rules come from? It's ludicrous on the face of it. rules have some every must language all after. Cripes.

  10. I think the OR in "additions or minor errors" sets the meaning of "none" to plural; replace OR with AND and "none" can be singular.

  11. "None" is singular. It means "not one."
    (In a pinch, it might even serve as a contraction of "no one.")

    "All politics is local."
    --the late former Speaker of the House Thomas Phillip "Tip" O'Neill, Jr.

  12. Swamp Fox, you are welcome to think so, but you are just wrong. Sorry to have to point that out, but there is no reputable authority on English usage who agrees with you.

  13. A descriptivist at heart, I tend to agree with those who argue that, like "everyone" losing is singularity, "none" is losing its tenuous plurality through use. The language of course changes over time through use. In the future, "alot" will become a word, as will "alright." Use is a juggernaut.