A grammar diva comes to my rescue
I try to have the grammar thing down, but there’s always more to learn. I love it when somebody really smart corrects me. Most recently, the “somebody really smart” was Patricia O’Conner, the author of several books, including Woe Is I and my one of my all-time favorite usage books, Origins of the Specious. Pat read the galleys of Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch and found a small error that would have turned my face carnelian had it made through page proofs and into print.
I was all set to call out this “error” in The New Yorker, which a friend brought to my attention. It appeared in the Comment section during the “Arab Spring” of 2011:
“The most striking and unexpected aspect of the protest is that none of these entities have been at the forefront.”
What do you think about that sentence? Is it fine? Is there something unnerving about the subject-verb agreement?
Here’s another suspect sentence, this one sent to me by a reader of the “Draft” series on Opionionator, in The New York Times. The sentence was written by someone who ought to know what’s right: Ben Yagoda, a grammar guru and the author of When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It! (Ben and I have both contributed to the “Draft” series; this excerpt is from his “The Most Comma Mistakes” post.)
“If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a thousand times. I’m referring to a student’s writing a sentence like:
“I went to see the movie, “Midnight in Paris” with my friend, Jessie.
“Comma after “movie,” comma after “friend” and, sometimes, comma after “Paris” as well. None are correct—unless “Midnight in Paris” is the only movie in the world and Jessie is the writer’s only friend.”
The reader distrusted Yagoda’s “None are correct,” explaining in an email, “I had a grammar drill sergeant in high school who taught me that none is always singular, and I have not, until now, had occasion to question it. I would use the singular ‘none is’ to mean ‘not one is correct.’ What do you say?”
This reader, who happens to be a professor in Southern California, added that she checked some reliable sources to see whether none a singular indefinite pronoun. “OWL at Purdue and Hacker both ignore the word,” she writes, sounding very much the expert. “I have two freshman comp texts with handbooks, both of which say it is singular. My colleague’s 1965 Warriner’s says it depends on the sentence (ex: None of the students were present.)”
I ask you, blog reader, What do you say? Is none always singular (as in “not one”), always plural (as in “not any”), or a little of both?
I was all set to call both sentences wrong, and to repeat what I’d learned in high school, that none is singular and requires a singular verb. That was when Pat stepped in to gently correct me. She, of course, had dealt with the issue in Woe Is I, where she says that you need a singular verb if you mean “none of it,” and a plural verb if you mean “none of them.” In Origins of the Specious, she goes further, recounting the moment she sat down “ with a pot of tea and Volume X (moul to ovum) of the Oxford English Dictionary to explore the etymological roots of the irksome pronoun:
“It seems that ‘none’ has been both singular and plural since Anglo-Saxon days. Alfred the Great used it as a plural back in the ninth century, when he translated a work by the Roman philosopher Boethius.
“Although the OED lists numerous examples of both singular and plural nones since Alfred’s day, it says plurals have been more common, especially in modern times. How’s that for an eye-opener? As they say, ‘None are so blind as those who will not see.’ It’s true that ‘none’ is a descendant of the Old English nan, which indeed is a combination of ne (‘not’) plus an (‘one’). But ‘any’ is also descended from the Old English an, and historically ‘none’ has always been closer in meaning to ‘not any.’
“As we know, ‘any’ can be either singular (any of one thing, like vodka) or plural (any of many things, like martinis). Likewise, ‘none’ is sometimes singular (‘none of the vodka is chilled’) and sometimes plural (‘none of the martinis are left’)….”
She adds that by the late 1800s, the belief that none meant not one had been “elevated to the status of a ‘rule,’ flying in the face of nearly a thousand years of English usage.” Why? Well, some people prefer black-and-white “rules” over shades-of-gray linguistic reality.
Here’s what usage guru Bryan A. Garner says in Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., page 569: “none = (1) not one; or (2) not any. Hence it may correctly take either a singular or a plural verb.” Garner mentions “the unfortunate fact that some stylists and publications insist that none is always singular, even in the most awkward constructions.”
This is probably way more than you need to know about the subject, but just so that you can feel really confident the next time someone challenges you, tell him that this information about none appears not just in O’Conner’s books or in Garner’s but in all three editions of Fowler, as well as Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, the Oxford English Grammar, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, all standard dictionaries (see the usage note in American Heritage 5th. ed.), and just about everywhere else.
Pat is second to none when it comes to this stuff.