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.”

I am always inclined, when seeing this argument, to point out that if it’s not one, then it’s not one, and so—like anything that’s not one—does not take a singular. Even zero takes the plural: “Zero people are coming.” Not “Zero person is coming.” Why? Because it’s not one.

But that’s not entirely the point. The point is that their reasoning is incorrect—and also that the way the word used to be used is not a suitable guide to how it’s used now.

Where does none come from? From Old English nan, cognate with words in other Germanic languages; it’s from a merger of ne “not” and an “one, any.” But throughout the history of the English language, from the very earliest written materials found, and consistently from then to the present, this word has had use as both singular and plural, just like some and all—other words that express portions of countable or mass objects.

You can see the difference between Some is lost and Some are lost, and between All is lost and All are lost. None has the same options, plus one more: along with differentiating between mass objects (None is lost) and countables (None are lost), you can use it, when speaking of parts of a group, to focus on the individuals (None of these people is right) or on the collective (None of these people are right).

And the fact that we, here and now, can do that, and do do that, is most important. The historical basis lends weight, but if it were simply historical practice no longer commonly observed, it would not matter now—for instance, English used to have double superlatives, but they were successfully wiped out of standard usage by prescriptivists in the 1700s and 1800s, and so the fact that they used to be acceptable does not save them now.

Do we need proof that none is acceptable now? The fact that people with bees in their bonnets inveigh against it with the “it’s obvious” argument is good evidence—if it were not accepted they would not see a need to try to change its acceptance—but it is not conclusive. We do better to turn to authors whose work is held in esteem and considered a good model of contemporary usage.

Swinburne, perhaps? “None of their own countrymen were so competent to control, alike by wisdom and by valour.” How about Fielding? “None are more ignorant of them than those learned Pedants, whose Lives have been entirely consumed in Colleges, and among Books.” (But, oh, those capitals.) You can find none are in Byron’s works, in Alexander Pope’s (“none are so much concerned at being injured by calumnies as they who are readiest to cast them upon their neighbours”), in Gray’s Anatomy. George Bernard Shaw, Charles Darwin, and Emily Dickinson had no problem with none of them are.

Of course, if self-appointed experts were ever to consult real experts, they would be answered quite readily. A glance into The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage immediately brings forth, under none, this pronouncement: “It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is singular only and must at all costs be followed by singular verbs or pronouns.” The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage agrees. But, it seems, they don’t feel a need to look in a reference—it’s obvious.

In short, when you are confronted with people who insist that a common and accepted usage is obviously wrong, you can assume that none of these people are right. And that a little research can bring forth an interesting fact about the language.

James Harbeck is a web editor, print designer, and trained linguist. Read his blog at sesquiotic.wordpress.com and articles at TheWeek.com.

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