I know Black Friday was a while ago now, and you’re probably not too interested in my exact location a month and half ago.  However, I will brazenly pretend that you are and tell you that I was up in the Bay Area that day — which also happened to be my birthday.  (It is not pleasant to have people refer to your birthday with the same name as the days that saw the Fisk-Gould market-cornering scheme, the slaughter of Iranian protesters, and the invasion of the Falkland Islands.  Then again, my birthdays have a tendency to involve some unpleasantness, such as the year my friends stole my bed as part of an elaborate birthday prank, the year my friends threw eggs at me as part of a less elaborate birthday prank, or the year that my friend threw a single egg at me as an allusion to the previous year’s egg-throwing.  So I suppose if someone’s birthday has to be called Black Friday, I can take one for the team.)

In honor of my ability to remain alive for a quarter-century, my dear friends fed me the Old Bay ice cream they had made and took me to the best place for Black Friday shopping: a used bookstore.  There, in the extreme bargain section at the front of the store, I saw The World According to Clarkson, a book written by Jeremy Clarkson, the overbearing but hilarious co-host of Top Gear.  And this is what, at long last, leads to the grammar portion of the post.

I finally got around to reading the book, and found this sentence in it:

(1) None of the people who run it is getting any sleep.

If you are in the newspaper biz, you probably thought nothing of that sentence, aside from some minor curiosity about what it refers to. (It’s the European Union, if you were concerned.)   But to me, the sentence was a fingernail caressed gently along a chalkboard: I could stand it, but I wanted badly to read the sentence with are replacing is.  I didn’t dare; Clarkson’s authoritative voice rumbled through my mind, dissuading me from disagreeing with his usage. Yet well after I finished reading the sentence, the question still smoldered in my head. Is Clarkson right? Is none singular, as he and many others make it, or plural, as I’d prefer to?

As is nearly always the case here at Motivated Grammar, the answer is that both are fine and have been for a long time. (“Home of the friendly grammarians!” could be the blog slogan just as easily as “Prescriptivism Must Die!”)  We can start our analysis by quickly checking in with other grammarians — and, stunningly, they are fairly quiet about the issue.  In fact, pretty much everyone agrees on three basic facts:

  • when none quantifies a singular or mass noun, only singular agreement is acceptable
  • when none quantifies a plural noun, both singular and plural agreements are acceptable.
  • when none doesn’t quantify anything, both agreements are acceptable.

To check how this jibes with real English usage, I ran some quick Google searches (drawing the numbers from page 10 of the results to improve accuracy):

is are
None of the food 14200 3
None of the projects 2730 2870
None 2350000 2990000

Hooray!  We’ve got a match! And what’s more, the singular and plural usages are basically equally common.  Sure looks like the facts are right.

But not everyone agrees with this; some claim that none must always be singular. The source of this belief is the canard that none is a contraction of not one, which must be singular.  Now, supposing that were the case, it is argued that (2a) being unacceptable would imply (2b) is unacceptable as well:

(2a) ?? Not one of the readers are interested in this.
(2b) None of the readers are interested in this.

But that’s just wrong, at every step of the way. First off, the fact that two words are semantically equivalent does not mean that they have the same grammar.  This is a common misconception, which I addressed in a previous post on different than.  The key point is that there are many semantically equivalent constructions in English that do not employ the same grammar. Therefore, even if not one and none were semantically equivalent, it wouldn’t mean they were both syntactically singular. And as it turns out, not one and none aren’t quite the same semantically anyway:

(3a) *Not one of the blind mice can see each other.
(3b) None of the blind mice can see each other.

If you’ll excuse a bit of linguistic terminology, (3b) shows that none can take the reciprocal anaphor each other. An anaphor is a pronoun that refers to some other entity in the discourse, and a reciprocal anaphor is one that refers to each of the members of that entity.  There are two reciprocals in English: each other or one another.  So when you say Bill and Linda like each other, you’re saying that Bill likes Linda and that Linda likes Bill.  You can’t use a reciprocal anaphor unless its referent can be thought of as a plural set.  This is why you can’t say *I like each other. (You’d use myself, a reflexive anaphor, instead.)  None can be thought as a plural set, but not one apparently can’t.  They’re not quite the same.

The fact that you can’t use a reciprocal with not one but can with none is compelling evidence that none isn’t just a contraction of not one.  Yes, not one and none have the same source; according to MWDEU, Old English nan ‘none’ formed from of ne an ‘not one’.  But shared history does not make none and not one the same any more than shared ancestors make two species the same.

Anyway, putting that canard behind us, MWDEU cites plural usage all the way back to King Alfred the Great in 888.  In fact, none can always be plural, except in a situation like (4):

(4) None of the food has/*have gone bad.

Otherwise, you’re free to choose between singular and plural.  I think I almost always use the plural, but it’s up to you to decide how you want to treat it.

Summary: None can be singular or plural, unless it quantifies a singular or mass noun. Don’t believe anyone who says none has to be singular because it’s a contraction of not one.  Both none of the meals is and none of the meals are are okay, and both none is and none are are okay.  *None of the stuff are is ungrammatical, though.