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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.

I’ve flown north for the winter, leaving behind this crummy weather:

Thank God I have sunglasses now.

for this:

Ah, no squinting!

Much better.  Along with leaving that damnable squint-inducing sun, I thought I’d also left behind the world of grammar curmudgeons when I got back to Pittsburgh.  After all, this is the sort of town where many people add an r to wash and half the people find nothing the slightest bit odd about saying “My grammar doesn’t need corrected.” But as always, I was mistaken.

Last month, I argued that “five times bigger” is obviously grammatical.  Unfortunately, James Kilpatrick didn’t read that post. Today I looked at Literal-Minded, who directed me to The Language Guy, who directed me to an old Kilpatrick column, which directed me to an older Kilpatrick column, in which he opines that “statistically speaking, there is no such thing as ‘six times lower.'”  I am not a statistician.  That much I will freely admit.  However, I’m willing to bet that neither Kilpatrick nor Lewis Guignard of Crouse, N.C., to whom Kilpatrick turns to buttress his claim, are statisticians either.  And the reason I am willing to make that bet is that, statistically speaking, there is such a thing as “six times lower”.

In fact, if Google is to be trusted, there are on the order of 16,000 such things as “six times lower” on the Internet.  And it’s not just a bunch of idiots using “six times lower”.  The phrase is attested in an Irish newspaper, an Australian newspaper, and an Indian government press release.  Furthermore, there are a lot of hits for times lower in Google Scholar, including 10 or so in books and journals with the word “statistics” in their titles, suggesting that people who actually are statisticians are fine with the construction as well.  So, statistically speaking, Kilpatrick is completely wrong.

As it turns out, the construction is over 200 years old.  David Hume, he of the famous philosophical development that I forgot as soon as I turned in the AP European History test, wrote in his History of England:

“Yet the middling price of cattle, so late as the reign of king Richard, we find to be above eight, near ten times lower than the present.”

Given that Hume died in 1776, I am pretty comfortable in claiming that the construction X times lower predates Kilpatrick. Heck, it predates the United States of America.

Now the only remaining objection to the eminently reasonable X times lower construction is that its meaning isn’t immediately clear. But that’s rubbish. It means exactly what it sounds like it ought to mean. The Brie was six times cheaper than the cave-aged Gruyere means that if the Brie cost $4, then the Gruyere cost $24. But don’t just trust me on that one. Trust the press release for the Nobel Prize awarded to Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, William D. Phillips, and Secretary of Energy nominee Steven Chu:

“It was found that the temperature was about 240 µK. This … agreed very well with a theoretically calculated temperature – the Doppler limit … Phillips found in 1988 that a temperature as low as 40µK could be attained. This value was six times lower than the theoretically calculated Doppler limit!”

So, just as with five times bigger, if you continue to object to six times lower, you are, statistically speaking, dumb.

Summary: “Six times lower” is no less intelligible and no less grammatical than “five times bigger”.  Which, of course, is both intelligible and grammatical.

Poe’s Law states that “without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake it for the genuine article.”  The problem is that some Creationists really are so crazy that they can’t be parodied. I’m beginning to think that Poe’s Law needs to be adapted to apply to prescriptivism as well as Creationism; you would be hard-pressed to find a grammar claim so absurd that no grammarian would say it.

I mention this because of Gene Weingarten’s Chatological Humor, a chat on the Washington Post website. Weingarten is a humor writer for the Post, but he apparently feels strongly about grammar; his chat alternates between jokes and weird complaints about language usage. Given that the rest of chat is clearly intended to be humorous, it’s difficult to tell if he intends his grammatical advice to be humorous as well. The problem is that, as per Poe’s Law, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish honest insane complaints about grammar from facetious insane complaints. As a result, I’m slightly uncomfortable with deriding his grammatical beliefs. After all, there’s nothing that makes you look dumber than getting riled up about obvious satire.

Let’s go for it anyway. On the October 28 chat, Weingarten asks if there is something wrong with the sentence

(1) The drawing of the succubus was five times bigger than the drawing of the incubus.

Is there? Weingarten apparently thinks so:

“Something can’t be five times bigger than something else. It can be five times as big. “Bigger” allows only addition, nut [sic] multiplication as the modifying factor. “Five times bigger” is meaningless.”

This is insane on its face. First, math and grammar generally shouldn’t mix.  That’s why Matt Lane (of Math Goes Pop!) and I no longer speak to each other.  But seriously, what the devil is this even supposed to mean?  I’m not even going to try to interpret the difference between addition and multiplication in bigger, because it’s so very obvious that this is completely wrong.

Five times bigger isn’t meaningless.  I understand it, and I’m willing to bet that you do too.  The only question is whether five times bigger means something that is 500 or 600% the size of the reference point. (From the examples I found from searching “exactly * times bigger” on Google, it looks like 500% is the standard interpretation.)  But this uncertain interpretation just indicates that five times bigger is chock full of meanings, not meaningless.

And anyway, despite Weingarten’s assertion that five times bigger is impossible or meaningless, it’s been attested for centuries.  Witness its use in The Folly and Unreasonableness of Atheism (1699), The English Rogue (1671), or An Exposition of the Prophescie of Hosea (1641).  Constructions don’t stick around for almost 500 years if they are meaningless.  How utterly ignorant of your language do you have be to go around asserting such things?

Unless this is all a clever joke, in which case I have an awful lot of egg to get off my face.

Summary: X times bigger is a completely valid phrase, so long as X is a number/quantifier.

The thing about people is that we are very proud of being better than non-people.  Perhaps the best example of this was the famous line from The Elephant Man, where the physically deformed but mentally capable elephant man has been corned by an angry mob and cries out: “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” While his first statement is not technically true, as humans are in fact animals, the key point remains — we think of ourselves as more than mere animals, and by gum, we’re proud of that.  This belief in human exceptionalism is commonly used as evidence against evolution (“I am not a monkey!”), and it also leads to a common grammar complaint:

People who (not that) use that incorrectly drive me batty.”

See, there are three different relative pronouns you can use to introduce a relative clause:

(1a) The house that I grew up in
(1b) The pinecone which fell from the tree onto my head
(1c) The calligrapher who ruined my last birthday

At issue here is whether that would be acceptable as the relative pronoun in (1c).

Why wouldn’t that be okay?  Well, the relative clause is modifying calligrapher, which is (almost certainly) a human.  The problem is that people don’t take kindly to being referred to as thats.  Think of the indignation with which Obama supporters met McCain’s “that one” remark and you get the idea of how much people don’t like to be thats.  (Inanimate objects do not exhibit the same ire at being referred to as whos, though that may be because no one would use who as a relative pronoun for an inanimate object.)  So here’s the question: is that an acceptable HRRP (human-referring relative pronoun)?

Unlike the anti-evolution argument, which relatively few people find compelling, a wide range of people believe that it’s wrong to use that as a HRRP. And not just fringe people, either. For instance, you’ll note that Alfred Hitchcock called his movie The Man Who Knew Too Much, and that Oliver Sacks titled his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Yet there remain those who freely use that as a HRRP. I’m thinking here of The People That Time Forgot, a largely forgotten sci-fi movie, and All The Man That I Need, a largely forgotten Whitney Houston song. (It is worth noting here that the who-titled objects listed here have been more successful than the that-titled ones, so if you are naming an artistic enterprise, it appears you would be well-served to follow the prescriptivists’ advice and use who with humans.)

But what of the grammar? Is it fair to be driven batty by the title of All the Man That I Need, rather than by the triteness of the lyrics? The answer, as it turns out, is complicated.  Well, that’s not entirely accurate; the answer is simple: probably not.  But the evidence for this is a bit more complex.  I’ll address the issue in three separate posts.  The current post looks at the history of the that/who battle, the next will look at situations where one or the other is preferred in modern usage, and the last will investigate the thorny issue of non-human animates.

So let’s start in on the historical evidence. According to the MWDEU, that was the first relative pronoun on the scene, existing at least since Middle English. Which came next, followed by who(m); both already existed in the language, but only began to be used as relative pronouns in the 14th and 15th centuries. The three relative pronouns were more or less interchangeable in the early days. Then, in the 17th century, that fell into disrepute and was ousted from literary usage.  That returned from its exile eventually, but things were never the same between the three.  The biggest change from our perspective is that the usurpers who and whom claimed they were the rightful HRRPs, that humans no longer were within that‘s domain. These pretenders to the throne were supported by many 18th century grammarians, who sought to return that to ignominy.

Against the grammarians, that fought valiantly and eventually returned triumphantly to its place as the default relative pronoun and once again became an acceptable HRRP.  However, remnants of the grammarians’ crusade ripple through to the present day.  MWDEU cites carryover from this period as a possible source of the “apparently common, yet unfounded, notion” that that is not an acceptable HRRP.

This history tells us a few things.  The first is that relative pronouns have been in flux throughout Modern English, and so we can’t look too far back in history for evidence of standard usage for relative pronouns.  The second is that you can’t say that logic dictates that who must be the HRRP, since who wasn’t even an option till the 15th century, didn’t rise to prominence until the 17th, and hasn’t managed to fully supplant that.  Humans don’t historically require who, that much is clear.  But given the incessant changes in relative pronoun behavior over the years, could it be that nowadays humans do require who?

As it turns out, the modern truth about HRRPs is somewhat more subtle that one might expect, and just might illustrate an interesting psycholinguistic point.  I’ll address this issue in the next post.

Summary: Historically, there’s no problem with using that in a relative clause modifying a person.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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