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Background

We have a motivational poster in our office that says:

None of us is as smart as all of us.

enter image description here

I think that it's grammatically incorrect, and here is my reasoning:

  • All of the tigers have spots.
  • All of us are here.
  • None of us are dead yet.

The three examples all sound correct when using the plural "are", rather than "is".

Question

Unfortunately, some of my coworkers disagree with me. They believe that the quote is correct when it uses the word "is". So my question is this:

Is the motivational quote grammatically correct or should it say "all"?

  • You need to provide evidence. Long ago, one of my teachers advocated "none is", so I use that (except sometimes I don't). Ngram says "none are" was more common in 1800, but "none is" is more common today. – GEdgar Jul 18 '18 at 15:14
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    That's why I asking here; To get evidence. – Andy Mercer Jul 18 '18 at 15:16
  • I'm still not sure who the poster is saying is smart (or not). Would we be just as smart if none of us were here? – De Novo Jul 18 '18 at 18:23
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    @DanHall It's a bit of a "whole is more than a sum of parts thing" – Azor Ahai Jul 18 '18 at 21:59
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    Sesame Street says it's "none of us are" – Jason S Jul 19 '18 at 16:40
51

Semantically, none is neither singular nor plural. It's less than one and much less than many.
So its subject agreement is entirely arbitrary. Plus, negatives are noted for their funny grammar.

Positive quantifiers are either singular in verb agreement, like each and every, or plural, like all. None can be either, depending on context.

  • Every boy is playing today.
  • Every one of the boys is playing today.
  • Each boy is playing today.
  • Each of the boys is playing today.
  • All of the boys are playing today.

  • None of them are playing today.

  • None of them is armed.

If it quantifies a plural noun phrase, as in none of us, then it's equivalent to the negation of a universal quantifier in many cases.

For instance,

  • None of us are going to the party.

is equivalent to

  • All of us are not going to the party.

which is ambiguous; that's one reason not to say it this way.
instead of

  • All of us are staying away from the party.

which is unequivocally plural.

As for the motivational slogan

  • None of us is as smart as all of us (note, no full stop)

It's intended to make you think, and it seems to have succeeded.
If you like, you can take it as short for

  • None of us is as smart as all of us together are.

which is meant to contrast individual intelligence with groupthink,
and therefore is unequivocally singular.

tl;dr It'd be grammatical with are, but it'd also be a less efficient slogan.

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    It just sounds wrong to my ear. I would even say "None of them are armed". However, sounding right to my ear doesn't equal being grammatically correct. Thanks for the thorough list of examples! – Andy Mercer Jul 18 '18 at 15:49
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    If you're a native speaker, sounding right to your ear does equal being grammatical. However, since everybody has a different grammar, with different boundaries, social concepts like "correctness" are not the same as grammaticality. Plus people play with language to achieve effects, and one of the ways they do it is by sounding wrong so people will pay attention. Like a blinking light. – John Lawler Jul 18 '18 at 15:55
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    I've also heard that if you can replace "none" with "not a single one", it's generally singular, whereas if "none" means "absolutely zero", then it's generally plural. This is more a rule of thumb than a hard grammatical law, but it fits here, and in basically every case I can imagine. (Albeit sometimes ambiguously, where either would fit) – Fund Monica's Lawsuit Jul 18 '18 at 16:44
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    How is "All of us are not going to the party" ambiguous? It's certainly a little unusual but the meaning seems clear. – tilper Jul 19 '18 at 0:02
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    It can mean either 'not all of us are going', or 'all of us are staying away'. Ambiguities like that happen with a quantifier (all) on the subject and a negated verb phrase; the scopes get twisted around. It's a standard logical phenomenon. The key term is Quantifier-Negative Ambiguity. – John Lawler Jul 19 '18 at 2:20
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According to Oxford Online Dictionaries, either is correct:

It is sometimes held that none can only take a singular verb, never a plural verb: none of them is coming tonight rather than none of them are coming tonight. There is little justification, historical or grammatical, for this view. None is descended from Old English nān meaning ‘not one’ and has been used for around a thousand years with both a singular and a plural verb, depending on the context and the emphasis needed

In this case, however, I believe "is" is more appropriate to stress the meaning that no individual is as smart as the collective all of us.

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    You bring up a good point about context and the reasoning behind the quote. Thanks! – Andy Mercer Jul 18 '18 at 15:50
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    Upvote for useful reference. However, I disagree with their conclusion that there is little grammatical justification for the singular. By their own etymological explanation, there is grammatical justification. It's only historical justification that makes the plural also acceptable. – Ratler Jul 20 '18 at 14:01
  • But I think the point of this quote from OOD is that usage can easily trump etymology as the justification of grammar. – Lee Mosher Jul 20 '18 at 17:39
  • Their misguided justification stems from their having fallen headlong into the old trap of allowing a prepositional phrase to determine the number of a sentence. That they phrase it with a form of pseudosophistication by saying "depending upon the context" just hides the fact that they entirely ignore their own historical exposition of "not one," which would rightly identify "not" as an adjective and "one" as a singular noun, necessarily taking a singular verb. In effect, their rationale for "why" is "because." – David W Jul 20 '18 at 18:48
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As almost everybody else here mentions (not "mention" :D), none comes from not one, so grammatically, it should be used as a singular (it baffles me how some people conclude the opposite from the same fact), similar to the usage of every:

Usage Note: Every is representative of a group of English words and expressions that are singular in form but felt to be plural in sense. The class includes noun phrases introduced by every, any, and certain uses of some. These expressions invariably take a singular verb; we say Every car has (not have) been tested, Anyone is (not are) liable to fall ill

However, as with many other linguistic corruptions, usage of none with the plural has become an acceptable part of the language due to its long usage, as mentioned in the Usage Note of the American Heritage Dictionary:

Usage Note: It is widely asserted that none is equivalent to no one, and hence requires a singular verb and singular pronoun: None of the prisoners was given his soup. It is true that none is etymologically derived from the Old English word ān, "one," but the word has been used as both a singular and a plural since the ninth century. The plural usage appears in the King James Bible ("All the drinking vessels of king Solomon were of gold ... none were of silver") as well as the works of canonical writers like Shakespeare, John Dryden, and Edmund Burke. It is widespread in the works of respectable writers today. Of course, the singular usage is perfectly acceptable. Choosing between singular or plural is thus more of a stylistic matter than a grammatical one.

Having said all that, to get to your specific question, the sentence None of us is as smart as all of us is absolutely correct.

Using are would also be understood and correct given the above. But as the American Heritage Dictionary says, choice between the two is more a matter of style (which is subjective), and in my opinion, the correct stylistic choice has been made in this case: the sentence is meant to say and emphasize that "no single individual is as smart as society as a whole (when we pool our intellectual resources)". But again, this is more a matter of opinion.

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  • It might be correct, but i think it's more ambiguous to use "is". The sentence could be interpreted as "is" referring to "none of us" as a whole, which would turn the sentence meaning into "a group consisting of none of us is as smart as all of us together", which is obviously the opposite of the true meaning of the quote. – Arthur Dent Jul 20 '18 at 16:18
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    It should be pointed out that some academic entrance exams, such as the GMAT, give no room for the contemporary, plural interpretation of "none." It's singular. You can argue the point, but the GMAT will still consider you wrong :). As a native speaker, reverting back to the classroom, I recall being taught to avoid the trap of letting a nearby prepositional phrase determine the number of a sentence. In many if not most cases, allowing "none" to be plural is the cheese luring the mouse to that very snare. – David W Jul 20 '18 at 18:44
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One IS smarter. The not just negates the "one is smarter" i.e. not "one is smarter". The not applies to the whole sentence, not just the word one. It's still one is smarter and therefore it's still none is smarter.

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1

None of us are as smart as all of us. 
Zero of us are as smart as all of us. 

This version of the sentence and its obvious paraphrasing, if strictly interpreted, are the exact opposite of motivational.  They imply that everyone thinking together is no better than no one thinking at all -- so why make the effort? 

 

None of us is as smart as all of us. 
No one of us is as smart as all of us. 

This version and its common interpretation express the intended motivating sentiment.  Whether right or wrong, it claims that no single person in the group can outperform the whole group working together -- so we should use our combined intelligence. 

 

If you've ever dealt with design by committee, you might find the version not cast in the singular to be closer to truthful, however far from motivational. 

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0

One respondent here wrote "But the accepted etymology of 'none' corresponds to 'not one', which is therefore not singular."

It seems this writer wants to interpret "not one" to mean that if something is "not one" the number must be "more than one" (justifying him saying "therefore not singular"). I disagree:

I take "not one" [and therefore also "none"] in this context to mean "not even one individual within some group"

Example: I asked ten persons where the post office is, and not ONE of the ten persons I asked is aware of the location of the post office. Not one is aware. None is aware.

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  • Why the downvote? – Tim Jul 20 '18 at 10:10
  • 'One' is the only singular quantity. 'Zero' and 'One' are the only non-plural quantities. 'None' derives from 'not one', but it means 'zero' (the 'not' can no longer be taken as an adverb). – AmI Jul 25 '18 at 22:47
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"None" is just short for "no one". None is not plural. It's not singular either, but it's even less plural.

So "No one of us IS smarter..."

I mean, I sure am not, but this is open and shut.

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  • But the accepted etymology of 'none' corresponds to 'not one', which is therefore not singular. – AmI Jul 19 '18 at 22:55
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    @AmI, it doesn't work like that. Not does not make the noun non-singular. E.g., you would say "there is not one book that I like", not "there are not one book". – Ratler Jul 20 '18 at 13:54
  • That is a good point -- 'not' is an adverb, but when it is morphed onto 'one' in 'none' it no longer affects the verb. You can either choose its plurality to be ambiguous "there is/are none that I like", or you can choose to treat it like 'zero', which is non-singular "there are none that I like" == "there is not one that I like". – AmI Jul 23 '18 at 20:26

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