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Is "None" Singular or Plural?

Categories: Grammar.

Q: The word “none” should always be singular, right?
—Anonymous

A: This is a major misconception. “None” can be a singular pronoun if it’s referring to “not one” or “no part,” but it also can be plural when referring to “not any.” None of the apple was eaten. Apple is a singular item, so you’d use the singular verb “was.” None of the ballplayers were on the team bus after the game. Here, “none” refers to “not any of the ballplayers” just as much as it refers to “not one of the ballplayers,” so it can be plural. Pluralizing it not only makes it a clearer sentence, but also makes it less awkward to read.


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4 Responses to Is "None" Singular or Plural?

  1. jasontaylor7 says:

    The question: is “none” plural or singular?

    I looked at the first three or so pages on the internet just now on this topic including this one. They all imply it is an extremely complex and tricky situation with a general rule and a bunch of exceptions. I now think this is bunk and I’ll tell you why. Probably someone else before me came up with my method, but, if so, they aren’t sitting on the top of google, so I may was well type this out. Here is my definitive way of getting the right answer, or at least what should be the right answer were it not for the allowance of ambiguities within English and need out of politeness to avoid saying anyone else is wrong. But first, a detour.

    For some background on answering the question, one should first understand the purpose of “none”. If I were to write,

    The apple was not eaten.

    it wouldn’t 100% clear how much if any of the apple was eaten. Why? Well, am I saying the entire apple was not eaten or that not any of the apple was eaten? See the problem? The purpose of “none” must, obviously, have been to remove this sort of ambiguity and it means “not any” in this case to be able to indicate with 100% clarity that 0% of the apple was eaten. None is extremely useful because the most important word (indicating, e.g., innocence of the crime of stealing some food) is put first.

    Now that we know the likely purpose of “none,” let me present my super easy way of answering the singular or plural question: by rewriting the sentence without using none. So, instead of

    None of the apple (was/were) eaten.

    we, upon a rewrite, get either the first quoted sentence above I used as an example to indicate the need of “none” (which proves that “was” is correct) or

    Not any of the apple *was* eaten.

    also proving it.

    Now, for completeness, let us consider a plural example.

    None of the cookies (was/were) eaten.

    Upon a rewrite avoiding “none,” we get

    Not any of the cookies *were* eaten.

    To show how definitive my system is, note that if I write

    The cookies was not eaten.

    it is clearly 100% wrong.

    There you have my method I invented (or probably reinvented) today to get to the bottom of this question.
    Cheers,
    Jason
    Jason Taylor http://jasontaylor.us

  2. christine webb-curtis says:

    In response to Lisa von Lempke, I’m with you on that teeth-grating series (and more) of misused words. Especially the “lie, lay, lain/lay, laid, laid” confusion, which is absolutely the most common (especially by dog owners), followed closely by the confusion between “I/me, he/him, she/her, we/them.” Those rankle me most when spoken by a television reporter, a public speaker, a clergyman, or anyone else who is supposed to set an example to us all.

    In response to both Brian Klems and David Bowman, thanks for expressing the “none” rules so articulately. That was crystal clear.

  3. David Bowman says:

    I used to say that "none" always requires a singular verb. Now, however, I’m willing to say "none" can be singular or plural, depending on how it is used.

    Here’s my "new" take on this, from the post "None of These" Is Plural. I made the switch because 1) this argument makes sense and 2) “none” has been used this way for centuries.

    On some issues, such as “which” vs. “that,” I am a prescriptive grammarian. Regardless of how people (mis)use these words, I stick to the rule. The difference between “that” and “which” is an issue of understanding. These two words communicate different meanings.

    On this issue, however, I believe I can safely follow usage patterns and not the “rules.” It doesn’t affect the meaning, which is my most important concern. With this in mind, here’s my advice.

    1. Find the word/words to which “none” refers, i.e., the referent.
    2. Determine if the referent is singular or plural.
    3. Use a singular or plural verb depending on the referent.

    Thus, we can say "None of this soup tastes good" and "None of these apples are rotten."

  4. I think it comes from people thinking ‘none’ is a contraction of ‘not one’.

    As a non-native speaker of English, I’m curious to know how most English speakers feel, these days, about a number of things I keep coming up against, and that abhor me (I am easily abhorred.) What, Brian, do you think of:

    – She told he and I to sit down
    – e.coli is a bacteria
    – they shared a name in common (or even: they shared the same name in common)
    – he was lead into the basement
    – the key lied on the mantelpiece

    ohh…I forget heaps of other ones. They will come back to me.

    So, do these things send a chill down your back, too?

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