None of it is true, and none of them are right

One of the more popular grammar superstitions is that none must always only be singular. This belief has less basis and produces more awkward results than the idea that you should never step on cracks in the sidewalk, but it persists, even though if you Google none is none are you will get a full page of authoritative sites, none of which supports it.

None of which support it. Not one of which supports it.

Ah, and there’s the thing: those who spread this bit of syntactic spit-over-the-shoulder support it with the contention that none is short for not one or no one. Since you would say no one agrees or not one of them agrees, you should – they counsel – say none agrees and none of them agrees.

Even if the supposed derivation were true, it wouldn’t matter: etymology is not a guide to current usage. Even words that have their current form due to a historical mistake still aren’t guided by the pre-mistake usage – although peas was a reanalysis of pease, which was singular, we can’t now say The peas is ready. (Well, not in standard English, anyway.) But none isn’t a contraction of no one or not one.

OK, to be fair, back in the mists of time it came from a root meaning ‘not’ and a root meaning ‘one’ or ‘any’. But by the time there was an English, it was already one word, nan or non, and it was already being used with plural as well as singular referents.

And there’s the important thing: you can use it with the singular. Of course you can. It’s the less common usage – when we want the singular we are more likely to say no one or not one – but it’s entirely available. You can even use the conjugation to make a subtle differentiation: “We expected deer, but none have arrived”; “We expected deer, but none has arrived.” (The former sentence might be spoken in a park, the latter perhaps in a restaurant.)

Given that every authoritative, learned source you can find will tell you that none can be singular or plural – and given that anyone well read in English knows it by reflex – how is it that so many people insist on this mumpsimus? Most likely just because it was enshrined in one book that remains popular, even though it is inconsistent, self-contradictory, and prone to declaring many of the most revered authors in the language to be wrong.

The book in question is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. If you want to know why people who know English syntax well tend not to be so fond of it, read Geoffrey Pullum’s “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” Pullum notes that on the matter of plural none, Strunk and White place themselves above Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Lucy Maude Montgomery.

They also place themselves above John Dryden (himself no wild descriptivist), Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith, and Somerset Maugham – and that’s just in the short list of citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. I particularly like these two illustrative quotations presented by the OED:

None are more ignorant of them than those learned Pedants…
Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

There are none so deaf as those who will not hear the truth.
The Times, March 4, 1963

So trust your ear, and ignore those who self-deafen with this superstitious hypercorrection. None of them is right.

7 responses to “None of it is true, and none of them are right

  1. None argument here…or am I doing it wrong?

    By the way, you’ve been chosen as one of today’s nine blogs in That’s So Jacob’s Ninth Month Blog Challenge! I challenge you to find nine blogs you find interesting and give them a comment to brighten their day…well, eight other blogs and mine 🙂 Copy this message in your comment and enjoy your new blog friends!

  2. One of the leading self-appointed grammar experts in the UK is John Humphrys, who knows about as much about language as I do about crochet. In fact, total ignorance of linguistics seems to be a requirement for aspiring grammaticasters. Well done for pointing out the ignorance which underlies so much of this pompous rubbish! 🙂

  3. People who curmudgeonly espouse rules they learned in school are often annoying and impolite, and almost always wrong about how language really works. (It’s possible to make such comments with a sense of humor too, and still be wrong about what constitutes a rule.) The rule-mongers seem to think their rules are objective and absolute, and apply to people other than themselves; they’re wrong about that.

    [The following rant has been developing well before reading this column.]
    But those “peevers” are part of the language too. Reactions to language are part of how we use language. If many (educated, respected, etc.) people think it’s OK to use “literally” in figurative contexts (say), then it’s a valid part of the language. But if many (….) people think it’s bad language, then that peeve is part of the language too. Just not a universal imperative. How we respond to what we read and hear is as important as how we write and speak, but it’s harder to communicate. You don’t notice all the times some writers eschew a language element. The “purists” make their language (reading) practices known by complaining when they see something they don’t like. That doesn’t mean they’re the only ones with those reactions. And if they suggest the rule is “absolute,” they’re wrong, but it’s also possible to accept the intensity of their beef and respect it as a belief of an educated user of language.

    I’ve seen many attempts by (people I believe to be) descriptivists to engage with the self-styled language purists, and to dispute their beliefs about language, in ways that they would eschew when encountering widespread beliefs about what uses are _acceptable_ (as observed in language usage). To tell a complainer that their language belief is _wrong,_ especially to say that they should _prefer_ certain formulations, seems to me opposite of descriptivist. (I generally don’t like using the singular “they” but it seemed right in this context, not just as a matter of syntax.)

  4. (Language changes over time. Innovations are accepted and appreciated by some, and detested and eschewed by others. Some innovations survive, and others don’t. The battle is not won by the ones with the best logical arguments, understanding of history, or other reasoning.)

    • No one’s really a strict descriptivist. We all participate in creating and maintaining the language. I am strongly in favour of maintaining the expressive value of the language, and strongly against prescription that may make it “tidy” (to a certain way of thinking) but restrict the expressive power of the language without adding anything useful (a “tidiness” that is really just enforced intellectual limitation is not useful, in my view, and neither is the class-based class-maintaining attitude of those who call people “uneducated” or “illiterate” because they do not adhere to invented rules). In the case of none, we have an invented “rule” that causes those who follow it not only to limit their expressive potential but actually to produce some results that sound awkward to nearly everyone and are in conflict with the usages of the most respected writers in the language. I’d say it’s well justified to say that they’re wrong in that prescription, in the same way as someone is wrong who insists on including the eggshells in an omelet.

      A couple of articles further expanding my thoughts on this topic: (a shorter piece on people who would “purify” the language) (a longer piece, originally a presentation, on language change, how it works, the history of the English language, and more)

  5. I agree with almost everything you’re saying– that there are people who believe in obsolete or made-up rules, and some of them harangue the “violators” about what they wrongly think is the debasement of language. The English language isn’t what they think it is. They are wrong when they say other people shouldn’t violate their “rules.” It’s annoying when they do.

    But language of these self-styled purists isn’t isolated and idiosyncratic; there are enough of these “peevers” that they evoke responses, and they share many peeves in common. If innovations in language usage are accepted as part of the language, why can’t innovations in language eschewal? We don’t judge usage by logic; why judge eschewal that way? These rules have a constituency and a set of speakers/listeners- writers/readers who believe in them. That would seem to give these rules a niche in the language.

    I really didn’t think the omelet metaphor was illuminating; I saw it merely as emblematic of “wrongness.” (And I think eggshells may have nutritious calcium if powdered appropriately.) Consider people who don’t have celiac disease, but won’t eat (I was going to say es-chew again) gluten. That’s their right, and if someone refuses to eat gluten for no good reason, I won’t try to stop them. 😉

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