Magazine May 18, 2020, Issue

Letters

(Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

Is ‘None’ Singular or Plural?

I am and always have been observant of proper and improper grammatical usage. Recently, my eight-year-old, second-grader granddaughter (who reads two or three levels above grade) began a sentence, and I quote, “Yesterday, me and Mom . . .” I suspect that a majority of college-educated persons could not explain why correct usage requires us to say “It is fitting that he and Sally should be rewarded” but also “It is fitting for Sally and him to be rewarded.” Often, I have detected mistakes made by undoubtedly competent writers, including those writing in high-level publications. On this final note, may I refer you to the last sentence in “Perplexingly Pesky Pronouns” (Bryan A. Garner, April 30), which begins: “None of these problems have . . .”

Paul Shalita
Tucson, Ariz.

Bryan A. Garner responds: It’s true that one sometimes encounters the etymological argument that none must be singular because, in Old English a thousand years ago, it was a contraction of the words denoting “not one.” But as I say in Garner’s Modern English Usage, the phrasing none is occurs less frequently than none are “particularly in educated speech, and it therefore sounds somewhat stilted” (p. 629). Both none is and none are are unimpeachable.

This is nothing new. In his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the incomparable H. W. Fowler wrote that “it is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun [none] is sing. only & must at all costs be followed by sing. verbs &c.; the Oxford English Dictionary explicitly states that pl. construction is commoner” (p. 381). In 1938, Albert Marckwardt and Fred Walcott asserted in Facts about Current English Usage that “no authority can be found for condemning the use of ‘none’ with plural verb” (p. 74). They quote a distinguished author as saying, “It is pure priggishness to pretend that none is always singular.” I could multiply examples a hundredfold.

For that reason, I cut from my first draft of the column a postscript that began, “You might have noticed that my final paragraph says, ‘None of these problems have . . .’ Perhaps you thought have should be has.” Etc. But then I cut it, perhaps wrongly, thinking it too self-conscious and entirely unnecessary.

But now I’m thinking I should now say that you might have noticed that in both this paragraph and the last, I use say in reference to the written as opposed to the spoken word. Is this acceptable? Entirely. As the Oxford English Dictionary said in its first edition of 1933, the use of say “in reference to written expression does not ordinarily, like the similar use of speak, involve any consciousness of metaphor” (vol. 9, p. 152).

And now I’m thinking of a further objection. “But wait. Can a book say something? Doesn’t the author say it in the book? You can’t say that a book says something.” The answer is yes, books can say things. It’s a common figure of speech called “hypallage.” You could look it up.

Writing about English usage has its built-in challenges.

 

Correction

“Death and the Virus” (Joseph Epstein, April 20) stated that Epicurus lived from 341 to 270. The years are in fact 341–270 b.c.

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