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Wordplay: None of these people are right

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.


You have probably encountered, every now and then, people who will aver that none can take only a singular conjugation, never a plural: never none are, always none is.

The argument they present is based on the “it’s obvious” principle so beloved of amateur grammarians. This is the principle by which, for instance, many people will insist that anyways is bad English: “Any takes a singular, so it has to be way, not ways. It’s obvious.” Whenever someone presents an analysis whereby a common usage is “obviously” wrong, you can assume they’re misanalyzing—in the preceding example, for instance, the s is not a plural but an old genitive, originally there to make the word mean “of or by any way.”

The “it’s obvious” argument that is applied to none is as follows: “None comes from no one (or not one). One is singular. So none must be singular. It’s obvious.”