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.