Prescriptivist’s Corner: Plural None

Several of you have written about the following sentence that appeared in last week’s A Way With Words contending that it is grammatically incorrect:

None of these are accurate, although all of them have elements of truth.

The contention is that none derives from no one and therefore should take the singular, as in:

None of these is accurate…

This contention is not correct. None can take either the singular or the plural verb form. The reasons for this are as follows.

First, it is not quite accurate to say that none comes from no one. As far back as you care to go in English, it has been a single word. The earliest Old English form is nan, cognate with the Old Frisian form. It is true that it ultimately is a compounding of the Germanic ne- and the word for one, but this happened long before there was an English language.

The second, and more important, reason is that grammar is determined by usage, not by etymology. It does not matter where none came from. What matters is how people, especially those writers we respect, use it. Grammar is not logical and cannot be determined via deduction; it is arbitrary and capricious, subject to the desires of those who speak the language.

Third, those who insist that it must always take the singular ignore the grammatical concept of notional agreement or notional concord, where the subject-verb agreement follows the logic of sense, not the arbitrariness of grammatical markers.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Fowler (1926) wrote about none:

It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is sing. only & must at all costs be followed by sing. verbs.

Barzun (1966) says:

Lexicographers, who know as well as journalists that none = no one, point out that it is rather more commonly treated in modern usage as a plural, as if it mean no ones; and the same is true of colloquial habit, as anyone’s ears will tell him. Literature shows both usages without a clear preponderance.

The OED2 (1989) says:

Many commentators state that none should take singular concord, but this has generally been less common than plural concord, especially between the 17th and 19th centuries.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1989) goes into excruciating detail on the subject, coming up with:

Evidence in the Merriam-Webster files, all gathered in the 20th century, shows no trends. The possible effect of editorial opinion can occasionally be found: we have a pretty long run of Time citations that are mostly singular, and about as long a run from the New Yorker that are mostly plural. It appears that writers generally make it singular or plural according to whatever their idea is when they write. This matching of verb (or referring pronoun) to a pronoun by sense, rather than formal grammatical number, is known as national agreement.

Garner (1998) concludes:

none = (1) not one; or (2) not any. Hence it may correctly take either a singular or a plural verb.

Peters (2004) states:

None is variable, and may take either singular or plural.

So there you have it. My best advice when such questions arise is to discard what your eighth-grade English teacher taught you and consult a good dictionary of usage.

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