None: singular or plural?

None, the nifty English word that means not one or not any, can be both singular and plural.

With mass nouns
Look at this sentence:

None of the chaos ruins her Easter party.

Here, none is singular because it comes before the mass noun chaos. Since mass nouns are treated as being singular, none gets the singular verb ruins. (Here’s a refresher on mass nouns, if you’re interested.)

Remember: if none links to a mass noun, use a singular verb.

Singular or plural?
Mass nouns are the easy part. Now it gets a bit wishy-washy. Since none can mean not one or not any, deciding whether to use a singular or plural verb depends on which definition you use.

Look at this sentence:

None of the bunnies is pink.

If you are taking none to mean not one, then your sentence has a singular sense. Not one of the bunnies is pink. In this case, you could argue that the singular verb is is the better choice.

However, you could also take none to mean not any, which would give it a sense of plurality. With this definition in mind, now look at the sentence.

None of the bunnies are pink.

You could switch none for not any and get: not any of the bunnies are pink. With this sense, the plural verb are makes more sense.

You can see there is no clear answer for dealing with none. Many people argue that using a plural verb with none simply sounds better. Still, there are pedants who say none should have a singular verb.

Usage note
I really enjoyed Merriam-Webster’s usage note about this controversy:

As the entry here indicates, this pronoun takes either a singular or a plural verb. Yet many people are convinced that none is singular only. We know about these people because they write to newspaper editors and to broadcasters, and a small number of them write usage books. The idea that none must be singular is rooted in etymology: nān, its Old English equivalent, was formed from a negative particle ne- “not” and ān “one.” The first person we know of who combined knowledge of the etymology with disapproval of the plural verb was Charles Coote, an Englishman who published a grammar in 1788. He was apparently not so familiar with the grammar of Old English, where nān was both singular and plural. King Alfred the Great, in fact, used nān as a plural as far back as a.d. 888. Many of Coote’s contemporaries knew that none was both singular and plural, and most writers on usage to this day know it, but the notion of its unalterable singularity has become part of the folklore of English usage.

I don’t say this often on Grammar Party, but in this case, I think it’s best to go with your gut.

2 thoughts on “None: singular or plural?

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