is none singular?
July 14, 2005 5:44 PM   Subscribe

Which is correct, and why? (a) "None of those were..." (b) "None of those was..."

I mean, seriously. Is "none" singular?
posted by cortex to Religion & Philosophy (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"None" implies abscence of not just one, but a group of things. At any rate, "these" definitely refers to more than one thing. Were is the proper word.
posted by attercoppe at 5:52 PM on July 14, 2005

None is singular. Think "Not one."
posted by willpie at 5:52 PM on July 14, 2005

None is singular, and willpie beat me to it, but you can find plenty of exceptions in the works of good writers. Attercoppe has to hand in its pedant badge. However, languagehat will be along shortly to explain why you shouldn't set such store by it.

The plural lure of "those" is so strong that we forget that the singular "none" is the antecedent of the verb. That's why option (a) sounds ok. If you are the kind of person who believes common usage trumps rigid application of rules, then option (a) IS ok too. Option (b) is unimpeachable.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:12 PM on July 14, 2005

According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (via


1. No one; not one; nobody: None dared to do it.
2. Not any: None of my classmates survived the war.
3. No part; not any: none of your business.

Definition #1 implies 'none' is singular. #2 implies 'none' is plural. And from the usage note:

The choice between a singular or plural verb depends on the desired effect.

Everybody's right! Yay!
posted by bachelor#3 at 6:14 PM on July 14, 2005

Though if the sentence were in the subjunctive tense, it would be "were": "If none of the flights were direct, I would consider a short stopover"
posted by duck at 6:15 PM on July 14, 2005

None can be either singular or plural, depending on context. It may mean "not one" as willpie suggests, but it's just as likely to mean "not any." Indeed, the OED says that, when acting as a pronoun, the denotation of "No people" is "Now the commoner usage, the singular being expressed by no one." Similarly, when followed by "of," the sense is "Not any (one) of a number of people or things" -- if used to refer to "any," there would be a plural verb; for "one," the verb would be singular.

and as I preview this, I see bachelor#3 has said essentially the exact same thing.
posted by 5500 at 6:18 PM on July 14, 2005

"None" as a modifier denoting numbers can be either singular or plural depending on the noun or pronoun it modifies. In this case, "those" is plural, so the proper verb would be "were".

"None" as a pronoun replacing a noun also depends on the singularity or plurality of the noun replaced.

"None" = "not one" is also apparently a grammatical myth. "Not any" is a more correct rule of thumb. "None" is NOT always singular, and the only time "none" makes sense as singular is with the pronoun "it", as in "none of it is true".

On preview: Wow you people are fast!
posted by Lush at 6:23 PM on July 14, 2005

Yeah, what they said. People get confused by etymology and (what they think is) logic. If it feels right when you say it, it probably is right.
posted by languagehat at 7:12 PM on July 14, 2005

"One" is singular. Any other number - two, three, five hundred leventy thirteen - isn't.

"None" is clearly not "one", regardless of whether it's considered to mean "not one" or not, and is therefore handled the same way as any other non-singular.

Of the above replies: one (the first) was correct; none of the others were.
posted by flabdablet at 7:22 PM on July 14, 2005

Flabdablet - "Of the answers to the question, none was entirely convincing. On the other hand, none of them were particularly bad either."

"None" may properly be used either as a singular or as a plural word, depending on the context.
posted by socratic at 7:33 PM on July 14, 2005

Or from

Main Entry: none
Pronunciation: 'n&n
Function: pronoun, singular or plural in construction
Etymology: Middle English, from Old English nAn, from ne not + An one -- more at NO, ONE
1 : not any
2 : not one : NOBODY
3 : not any such thing or person
4 : no part : NOTHING
posted by socratic at 7:54 PM on July 14, 2005

Response by poster: I thank you, your country thanks you, #mefi thanks you. Truer allies in the linguistic swamps there are none.
posted by cortex at 8:37 PM on July 14, 2005

Response by poster: i have no idea if that was grammatically correct
posted by cortex at 8:39 PM on July 14, 2005

I guess I wasn't real clear in my answer - I was really referring to the specific phrases in the question, not to every instance of none; the use of "these" in this case tells us that "none", in this case, is plural.

Or, what bachelor#3, 5500, lush, (of course) languagehat all said.

And thanks anyway, flabdablet.

cortex: Grammatically, I think yes. Syntactically, maybe not so much.
posted by attercoppe at 8:52 PM on July 14, 2005

None of those were

None of it was

It's not the None you need to be looking at, it's the those.
posted by krisjohn at 9:01 PM on July 14, 2005

Dictionaries describe how words were used prior to when the definition was written. You can answer questions like "what was the most common usage of this word in the past," but not questions of correct usage in the present. If it sounds right to most native speakers, it's right, and you can safely ignore the dictionary. In this case, to me, the meaning of both sentences is clear.
posted by Hildago at 9:17 PM on July 14, 2005

Ah, the joys of being a journalist. You see, when I have usage questions, I don't care what's actually "correct" with the descriptivists (of which our dear Languagehat is one), I only care what the AP Stylebook says. Usually, they're correct for general grammar (though they have some weird tics too).
Here's what they say:
none It usually means no single one. When used in this sense, it always takes singular verbs and pronouns, None of the seats was in its right place. Use a plural only if the sense is no two, or no amount: None of the consultants agree on the same approach. None of the taxes have been paid.
So... Depends on the context, chief.
posted by klangklangston at 12:15 AM on July 15, 2005

I don't care what's actually "correct" with the descriptivists (of which our dear Languagehat is one) ...

No he's not. Have you read a single one of his comments? It doesn't look like it.
posted by nthdegx at 4:30 AM on July 15, 2005

Nthdegx: Yeah, he is, especially with his answer in this thread. Do you know the difference between description and prescription? Or are those just big confusing words to you?
posted by klangklangston at 7:10 AM on July 15, 2005

klangklangston's got the usage rules right.

The general rule of thumb is that none is singular if used with a collective noun and plural if used with a plural noun.
posted by desuetude at 8:07 AM on July 15, 2005

Nthdegx: Yeah, I am, in this context. When I've got my editing hat on, like klangklangston I follow whichever stylebook the publication uses. But unlike klangklangston I don't think stylebook decisions are relevant to general language use.
posted by languagehat at 8:32 AM on July 15, 2005

Languagehat: Well, I dunno. First off, I think that the AP is pretty solidly on point here (that "none" depends on context). Second off, the only time I worry, really, about what's correct is when I'm writing for money. The rest of the time, well, I kinda catch-as-catch can. So when I see a question that asks what's correct, I assume that there's some sort of standard that the asker is looking to conform to. Otherwise, why would they care what's correct? Thirdly, I'm of the camp that believes voice in writing should be intentional. That means knowing the rules of the prescriptivists, and breaking them intentionally for emphasis or tone.
Fourth, having had a talk with one of the editors tasked with maintaining the AP Stylebook, I know that they tend to err on the side of traditional prescriptive grammar (mostly in order to avoid angry letters), with the serious caveat that grammar always serves clarity of meaning. While poets may dispute that goal, I tend to think that the AP is a pretty good guide for what is traditionally correct grammar, punctuation and word use in American English (especially mainstream media English). For example, while I don't personally think that "internet" should be capitalized, if asked what the correct usage was I'd say that the AP says to cap it, while Wired says don't bother, and advise usage based on the audience.
Finally, is the prescription that "none" is singular or plural based on contexts such a hard one to fill? Nah. He asked for a Rx and I gave it to him.
posted by klangklangston at 8:59 AM on July 15, 2005

5500 and lush (et al.) have it. It's part of the SAMMAN words group (some, all, most, more, any, none) that require a plural or singular verb depending on context (some of the pie is, some of the people are).
posted by Tuwa at 10:04 AM on July 15, 2005

klangklangston: Fair enough, and their advice in this case is sensible. My point would be that it's right because it's right, not because the AP said so. If they "err on the side of traditional prescriptive grammar," they probably include some egregious hoo-ha that I would have to turn the flamethrower on if it were to be presented here as general advice. I may as well repeat my usual recommendation for Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (or its shorter and cheaper cousin Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage), which not only tells you the traditional "rule" but gives you the facts of usage and lets you make up your own mind.
posted by languagehat at 10:07 AM on July 15, 2005

Or are those just big confusing words to you?

Clearly. I'll hold my hands up and say I ballsed that one up. Apologies.
posted by nthdegx at 10:39 AM on July 15, 2005

Whereas I would argue the AP is an authority because of their ubiquity, and further contend that consensus creates the "correct." (Oh, and the AP recommends Webster's New Collegiate as first reference, then Webster's New World as second.)
What's your problem with Strunk and White?
posted by klangklangston at 10:41 AM on July 15, 2005

From my Strunk and White (4th ed), p. 10:

With none, use the singular verb when the word means "no one" or "not one."

[incorrect]: None of us are perfect.
[correct]: None of us is perfect.

A plural verb is commonly used when none suggests more than one thing or person.

[correct]: None are so fallible as those who are sure they're right.
posted by tew at 11:00 AM on July 15, 2005

What's your problem with Strunk and White?

That, like most self-appointed style/grammar mavens, they don't actually know anything about language, though they know what they like. I suggest you read Language Log's posts on the subject; here's what I had to say elsewhere (I was being unwontedly polite, hence my bending over backwards to be nice to S&W):
Will Strunk's original little pamphlet of 1918 was a charming thing, and White's 1957 revision was very well done and prodded a lot of people into tightening their prose and thinking more carefully about what they were saying; his subsequent versions (1969, 1972, 1979, if I remember correctly) updated some of the examples but were basically unchanged. However, after his death the thing has been rewritten by person or persons unknown (it's quite strange that the book gives no indication of who's responsible for the changes), and a lot of White's style has gone and a lot of political correctness has entered by the side door. For a full description, see the long review in The Massachusetts Review, the beginning of which is online here. If you're going to get S&W, I'd recommend (as with Fowler) getting an early edition done by the master himself rather than the bland new version. (The same goes, by the way, for The Joy of Cooking.)
posted by languagehat at 12:39 PM on July 15, 2005

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