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A Word, Please: None is an 'is' and an 'are' too

May 04, 2012|By June Casagrande

I'm always careful with the word "none." Whenever it's the subject of a clause, I take special care with the verb.

The choice between "none is" and "none are," for example, can raise a lot of eyebrows. Compare "Of all my friends, none are as kind as you" with "Of all my friends, none is as kind as you." Many people will tell you that "none are" is wrong, for reasons we'll get to in a moment, and that, therefore, "none is" is the only correct choice.

That's actually not the case, but the idea still influences my decision. A grammar error need not be real to distract from what you're trying to say. A perceived error can muddle your message just as effectively. So I usually opt for "none is" over "none are" because it's the safer choice.

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Or so I thought. It turns out there's another view I'd never heard until I got this email from David in Orange County about my April 14 column, "The curious case of 'these ones.'"

"You may have a grammatical error in today's column," he wrote. "In your second-to-the-last paragraph you write '... none of your words IS carefully chosen.' I believe that none is an indefinite pronoun which can be singular or plural and should agree with the noun or pronoun to which it refers. In this sentence 'none' refers to 'words,' which is plural. The sentence should read "... none of your words ARE carefully chosen.' Am I missing something here?"

That was a new one on me, and startling in its logic. Yes, pronouns should agree in number with their antecedents — the words to which they refer. But it doesn't quite apply in this situation.

First, some background. The people who say "none" can never go with a plural verb like "are" argue that this is because the word "none" is necessarily singular. They insist that it means "not one," after all. Thus, any verb that goes with it should be singular: none is instead of none are, none goes instead of none go, none reads instead of none read, and so on.

There's just one problem with this view. "None" doesn't just mean "not one." According to dictionaries, it also means "not any," so it can be plural. "Is," "are," "goes," "go," "reads," "read" — any of these verb conjugations can be correct, depending on what you mean.

So, contrary to popular belief, "none" can be plural: "The notion that it is singular only is a myth," according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.

But what of this idea that it must be plural, at least in cases like "none of your words are carefully chosen"?

Yes, pronouns take their singular or plural status from the nouns they represent. That's why you'd say "Employees should keep their workplace clean" instead of "Employees should keep his workplace clean."

But is that really what's going on in a sentence like "none of your words is carefully chosen"? Not quite. Here, "none" isn't a pronoun meaning "words." The "of" before it indicates that "none" is instead referring to a subset of "words." And a subset could mean one word or numerous words.

So "none" can be singular or plural, depending only on the speaker's intent or emphasis.

"'None' has been both singular and plural since Old English and still is," Merriam-Webster's notes. "If in context it seems like a singular to you, use a singular verb; if it seems like a plural, use a plural verb. Both are acceptable beyond serious criticism."

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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