# “None” as plural indefinite pronoun

In my grammar book (English Grammar, HarperCollins Publishers), I read that none is occasionally treated as plural, but it is usually regarded as singular. Can you give me an example of sentence where none is used as plural pronoun?

• this question is quite zen; is this actually a koan? :) – mfg Aug 19 '10 at 20:30
• @mfg: If I would know what a koan is, I could reply. ;-) It's a simple question I had when I read the grammar book. After many years I have been taught British English, I wanted to buy a book about American English (I hope the one I bought in USA is really about American English). – kiamlaluno Aug 19 '10 at 21:13
• 'A Buddhist monk was asked to discard everything. "But I have nothing," he exclaimed. "Discard that too!" ordered his master.' – mfg Aug 20 '10 at 10:49
• @mfg: I got it. :-) – kiamlaluno Aug 20 '10 at 13:19
• @mfg: sweet i just became enlightened! – Claudiu Nov 17 '10 at 22:03

None is commonly used as a plural. You can find many examples in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. For example, I searched for none of the [nn2] [vv0] to find examples where none refers to something in plural and then takes a plural verb. ([nn2] matches any plural common noun and [vv0] matches any simple verb not inflected for third person singular, and so must be plural if used with a plural common noun). There were 117 results that matched, including:

• none of the airlines want
• none of the alternatives look
• none of the americans ask
• none of the answers make
• none of the appeals work
• none of the articles mention
• none of the artists take
• none of the attendants remember
• none of the authors speak
• none of the averages reflect
• none of the bankers quit
• none of the beads come
• none of the birds need
• none of the boys seem
• none of the broadcasts include
• none of the broadcasts use

I also searched for none of the [nn2] [vvz] to find examples where the verb is inflected for third person singular, and there were just 57 matches, including:

• none of the boys wants
• none of the studies reports
• none of the theories appears
• none of the things quadrupeds
• none of the vaccines addresses
• none of the women sees
• none of the actors knows
• none of the alternatives meets
• none of the authors calls
• none of the books points
• none of the candidates fits
• none of the changes seems
• none of the children knows
• none of the children understands
• none of the clubs pumps
• none of the codes calls

This indicates to me that the “usually regarded as singular” traditional rule is in fact about half as common as the “occasionally treated as plural” exception.

• I think the "usually singular/occasionally plural" ratio is what that prescriptive grammarians deeply wish were true, reality be damned :) – Kosmonaut Aug 19 '10 at 20:51
• It seems to me that the grammar book gives to usually a different meaning than the one I give to the word. I guess I could say I usually speak Chinese. ;-) – kiamlaluno Aug 19 '10 at 21:15
• @Chris re:POS tagger—yup, I noticed just a few minutes ago “none of the things quadrupeds” is probably not a valid example. – nohat Aug 20 '10 at 14:39
• “The ‘usually singular’ rule is about half as common as the ‘occasionally plural’ exception”—a phrasing worthy of an eleventy-first birthday party speech! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 8 '13 at 11:43
• @JanusBahsJacquet I prefer thinking of all “a lot/number/handful/X% of the NOUN”– and “some/most/much/none of the NOUN”–type constructions as premodifiers in the NP acting like partitive determiners, not prepositional phrases stealing focus. That way they don’t change the actual head noun, which still governs subject–verb agreement. At least, that’s how people seem to treat them in actual speech. Exceptions occur for one of the being always singular and many of the being always plural, but the rest are decoys. I’ve no professional references to support this perception, though; I wish I did – tchrist Sep 28 '14 at 6:01

None is indeed originally from not one or not a/an (since this happened before one and a/an became separate words, c.f. how French uses un/une for both the number one, and the indefinite article).

At the time that this happened though, it could be declined according to gender, number and case. King Alfred's translation of Boëthius' Consolatio Philosophiae (888CE) uses none not just plural but in a plural form.

So, even in very early use, while its origins may have been from not one, it had a meaning not any, and hence could be plural as well as singular.

It's also worth noting at this point, that no is also derived from not one in many senses (where used as a negative response, it has a different origin; no is a merging of two words), and its use with both singular and plural is less controversial (though not without differences of opinion as to just when it should be treated which way).

It would seem that the “logical” argument that none must be singular, because not one/not a/not an is singular is mistaking the word’s etymology for the word itself.

Of course, in leaving a defence of none being used in both the singular and the plural at this point, I could be doing the same thing: After all, Old English had different forms, and we do not. Some forms have given us separate words and we now have why as a separate word from what rather than their being the same word with different declensions.

It’s perfectly possible therefore, that by Modern English, none had become singular. However, it had not:

I will converse with iron-witted fools

And unrespective boys: none are for me

That look into me with considerate eyes:

High-reaching Buckingham grows circumspect.—Shakespeare, “Richard III”, Act IV, Scene ii

Before him there were none so beautiful, even from the beginning.—Ecclestiastes 45:15 DV

For the people were numbered, and, behold, there were none of the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead there.—Judges 21:9 KJV

None that go unto her return again, neither take they hold of the paths of life.—Proverbs 2:19 KJV

None were his friends but courtiers and clergymen, the worst at that time, and most corrupted sort of men; and court ladies, not the best of women; who, when they grow to that insolence as to appear active in state-affairs, are the certain sign of a dissolute, degenerate, and pusillanimous commonwealth.—Milton, “Upon The Earl of Strafford’s Death”

So was this a new strictness introduced in the 18th or 19th centuries, when some of the more notorious “rules” in English were introduced? Lindley Murray’s English grammar: adapted to the different classes of learners, with an appendix, containing rules and observations for assisting the more advanced students to write with perspicuity and accuracy (1835) argues:

None is used in both numbers: as, “None is so deaf as he that will not hear;” “None of those are equal to these.” It seems originally to have signified, according to its derivation, not one, and therefore to have had no plural; but there is good authority for the use of it in the plural number: as, “None that go unto her return again.” Prov. ii. 19. “Terms of peace were none vouchsaf'd” MILTON. “None of them are varied to express the gender.” “None of them have different endings for the numbers.” Lowth’s Introduction. (Emphasis his).

Interestingly, he cites the “not one” argument for singular-only use, and seems to suspect none was once singular-only for this reason, but is quick to reject it. One example quoted is from the KJV as given above, “Lowth’s Introduction” mentioned above is Archbishop Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar, so looking at this 19th Century grammarian gives us an 18th Century grammarian for free!

At the same time, it does point to when the edict against plural none may have arisen. We might suspect it came with modern style-guides choices being taken as overall edicts upon the language, but that Murray mentions the “not one” derivation could mean he is taking the effort to debunk advice found anywhere.

Still, with this bringing us close enough to the current age that we can take the very existence of questions like this on websites like this to bring us through to the home stretch, it’s safe to conclude:

1. None can be both singular and plural in use.
2. None’s being both singular and plural in use goes back to the earliest days of the language.
3. None’s being both singular and plural in use continued through to the earliest days of the modern form of the language.
4. None’s being both singular and plural in use was recognised by those who would have been strictest in their opinions on how English should be written.

If nothing else, the form “Almost none…” would seem to forbid the singular, rather than the plural:

*Almost none of the apples is edible.

With mass nouns, you have to use the singular. ("None of the wheat is...") With count nouns, you can use either the singular or the plural. ("None of the books is..." or "None of the books are...") Usually, the plural sounds more natural, unless you're trying to emphasize the idea of "not one", or if the words that follow work better in the singular.

The traditional answer is that 'none' should be construed with a singular verb (the rationalisation I remember being given is that it is a contraction of 'no one').

Ordinary people usually ignore this and construe 'none' with a plural.

So the answer is "plural is more common, but some people will criticise you for using it in formal contexts".

• none is not a contraction of no one. If "no one" is what you mean, you should use "nobody", not "none". – Billy ONeal Sep 28 '10 at 17:00
• The rationalization you were told was probably that none is a contracted form of not one rather than no one. – nohat Sep 28 '10 at 21:02
• "None shall pass!" -> "Nobody shall pass"? I'll pass on that. – Kosmonaut Sep 29 '10 at 0:33
• @Kosmonaut: @nohat probably has a better rationalization. But I still think it should be plural, even in formal settings. – Billy ONeal Sep 29 '10 at 5:27
• Remember that you can almost always invent some spurious rationalisation for whatever spurious rule you want to invent. I could say that it is more "rational" for verbs to have the ending -s in the plural, not the singular, because that is the pattern observed in nouns. – Neil Coffey Feb 9 '13 at 23:47