Is None Always Supposed to Be Singular or Can It Be Plural, Too?
Most of us at one time or another have heard the nursery rhyme, whether it was about ten little Indians or ten monkeys jumping on the bed. When the last one is gone, we are told “And then there were none.” Renowned British mystery writer and playwright Agatha Christie would use And Then There Were None for the title of the novel and film version of her play Ten Little Indians.
This nursery rhyme and other writings have run afoul of some people who insist that that line is poor English grammar. The word none is a contraction of not one, we are told; therefore, none must always be singular. A check of grammar authorities shows us that this is not the case at all. The grammar text I used in graduate school, for example, admitted that “many writers insist that none always be singular” because of its origin. It went on to say:
However, a more accurate way to assess its meaning is to recognize none as the negative, or opposite, of all and to treat it the same way, with its number (whether singular or plural) determined by the number of the modifier or referent. [Kolln, 103]
Another grammar text views it differently and says that none is “always held to be singular in number.” [Schutt, 42]
Language authorities differ. Opinions differ. There is a certain logic to the “none=not one” argument, but grammar is not mathematics, and usage can change over time. Rather than simply take the word of one “authority” over another, we decided to take a look at exactly how none has been construed in English over the years.
How We Attempted to Research This Question
If we had the time or money, we could read or scan hundreds of literary works looking for the use of none. In reality, a lot of this work has already been done thanks to the publication of concordances. At first we thought to take a look at Bible concordances. Not only is the Bible is a long book with various translations, but, being a sacred book, we felt is was safe to assume that a Bible translation would be free from any construction perceived as a grammatical error. Presumably, any translator would want to make the Lord speak His Word properly.
We also found concordances to the works of many other writers in English from Marlowe to Emily Dickinson. These concordances would show us how respected writers used the word none. In addition, we would also try to survey grammarians, especially historically significant ones, to see what they said about the matter. This would be our plan. Let us see how none is construed by Bible translations, famous writers, and grammar texts themselves. Could we arrive at some kind of consensus or conclusion?
None has always been used as a singular word in some contexts. The question is whether or not none is used as a plural in standard written English—and, if so, by whom. In order to tell the number of none in a sentence, we need to have a passage with none in the subject and with the verb in the present indicative tense in the predicate so that we can see whether the singular or plural form of the verb is being used. This eliminates most of the instances in which none is used. Many times it is not the subject; many other times the verb is in a different tense or mood. The one time we can tell number with a past tense, for example, is if the verb is formed with was or were. We also have to eliminate clauses with the subjunctive and not read them as plural. As we examine the way none is used in the remaining sentences, we begin to see that none has been treated as a plural in some instances at least since Elizabethan times.
Middle and Early Modern English
None was rare among the Middle English concordances we checked. From variant spellings such as , naan, and nane, we see that it was likely viewed as a negative of one. Even today it is sometimes used a synonym for no one. We were only able to find one example in the Middle English concordances we had access to where the singular was preferred over the plural when none had a plural referent: “Was none of you my sorwe slaked?” from line 346 of the fourteenth century York play The Last Judgment.
When we get to modern English, from 1500 to the present, things are different. Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) uses none once with a plural referent but retains the singular verb: “None of ye all there is, that is so made.” [Haugen, 302] This may not be a significant as it seems because we note that Shakespeare seems to prefer the singular none with plural you as well, even though he uses none as a plural in other cases. For example, the Epilogue of As You Like It says, “None of you hates them.” When we consider that there is is often used as a plural in speech as well, then Wyatt’s use of none may not be that significant.
Marlowe uses none once as a
plural. “None of both them thirst for Edward’s blood” [Edward II, 2442].
Three times none is clearly singular, but each time there is no
referent, and none could be understood at not one,
as in “None knows who I am.” [Massacre at
Shakespeare and Bible Classics
Of course, one the greatest of the sixteenth century writers is Shakespeare. We note that Shakespeare uses none as singular and plural when using plural referents. We see constructions like “Is there none of you Pygmalion’s images newly made?” [Measure for Measure, 3.2.87] and “There is none of my Uncle’s marks upon you” [As You Like It, 3.2.369]. Both of these use there is which even today is often used with a plural referent, at least in speech if not writing. Shakespeare uses none alone as a singular as in “None abides with me” [II Henry IV, 2.4.88] and in two other places. Nevertheless, Richard III has “None are for me” [4.2.29]. At least two other times Shakespeare uses none as a plural. Both cases suggests Kolln’s assertion that we can view none as the negative of all since both times none is used in contrast to all: “For none offend where all alike to dote” [Love’s Labour Lost, 4.3.24] and “All are dead, there need none to be blamed” [A Midsummer’s Night Dream, 5.1.357].
When we look at Bible translations from this same time period, we see a similar pattern. There are about seventy instances in the Douay Bible (1582-1610) where none was clearly used as a singular pronoun, usually with is, was, or there is. Typical are statements like “None of them was cleansed but Naaman” [Luke ], “None of them is lost’ [John ], or “There was none that…” [Ecclesiasticus 51:10]. Now, the Douay Bible was translated from the Latin and is meant to be used by Catholic clergy who knew Latin. With expressions like “Give us this day our supersubstantial bread,” some critics argue that the Douay Bible is not even really English. Indeed, the translators may have been working from Latin or may have been more conscious of the agreement with the verb and keeping none singular. Yet even in the Douay Bible there are three cases of a plural none: “None were hindered” [Wisdom ], “There were none so beautiful’ [Ecclesiasticus 45:15], or “There are none” [Isaiah 41:17]. Interestingly, none appears as a subject twenty-five more time in Isaiah, but it is always singular. I should note that the first two cases are clearly main clauses of a sentence where use of the subjunctive is not a possibility.
The 1611 King James or Authorized Version Bible also prefers the singular none, e.g., “Those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost” [John ]. There are about twenty-five constructions like this. Nevertheless, we found five exceptions as well, e.g., “There were none of the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead there” [Judges 21:9], “None that go unto her return again’ [Proverbs ], or “None of these things move me” [Acts ]. II Chronicles 9:20 also suggests that the King James translators sometimes understood none as a negative of all: “And all the drinking vessels of King Solomon were of gold, and all the vessels of the house of the forest of Lebanon were of pure gold; none were of silver.” In this case and in Judges 21:9 we know that the translation was made at the discretion of the English speakers since the Hebrew omits the verb to be in these sentences.
The Neoclassical Authors
By Neoclassical times none is clearly used according
to its context even by the scholarly
Three times the neoclassical playwright Congreve used none where its number can be determined. All three times it was used as a plural as in “Are none returned of those that followed Heli?” [The Mourning Bride, 4.1.74]. Dryden was a classicist par excellence and the source of some very prescriptive grammar rules, but even he occasionally used none as a plural. In his essay Of Dramatic Poesie (1668) he uses none as a plural at least three times as in “none are very violent against it” [Pro. IV], “none boast of in our age” [16:255], and “none of them exceed” [52:725].
The Nineteenth Century and the Strictest Grammarians
Two of the strictest prescriptive grammarians of the
eighteenth and early nineteenth century were Archbishop Lowth
and Lindley Murray. They are often seen as the standards and sources of most
grammar rules in
Nineteenth century writers continue to use none both
as a singular and a plural. Browning seems almost inconsistent. He uses none
four times as a singular and seven times as a plural in a subject with plural
referents. One line actually contains an apparent change of number within the
sentence: “None of you know, nor does he fare the worse” [The Ring and the
Book, 1.70]. Wordsworth uses none five times in a collective sense
in the subject, twice construing it as a plural and three times as a singular.
Two American writers had none listed in their
concordances; each had a single entry for the word. Both times it was used as a
plural: Benjamin Franklin (“All need, few have, none want good sense”) and
Emily Dickinson (“Since none of them are mine”). [Barbour,
147; Rosenbaum, 529]. Some may complain that
Modern Bible Translations
Apparently some newspapers have adhered to a none-is-singular-only rule. Such a guideline may have influenced some writers or publishers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but habit and common practice are hard to overcome. While the modern Bible translations of the twentieth century show a preference for the singular use of none, even the strictest used it as a plural on one occasion. Even Bible translators acknowledge the use of none as a plural.
The Revised Standard Version was the first widely disseminated twentieth-century translation (1952) and linguistically the most conservative. It even retains the thee and thou in the Psalms and other poetic passages. In virtually every case none is singular. The two exceptions include Proverbs 2:19, “None who go to her come back” which curiously contrasts with Proverbs , “None who touches her will go unpunished.”
The New American Bible, a Catholic Bible which came out in 1970, prefers the singular none also, using it about five times for every one plural in situations where the reader can tell the difference. So Hosea 7:7 says, “None of them calls upon me,” but Judith 12:3 says, “None of your people are with us.”
The New American Standard Bible, a translation favored by those of a more fundamentalist bent, uses none about thirty times as a clear singular. We thought we found a consistent use of none in a Bible translation, but there was one exception. Proverbs 2:19, that noteworthy verse, reads “None who go to her return.”
The New International Version, probably the most popular modern translation among evangelicals, has approximately twenty-two instances with none as a singular with possible plural referents. About half are with there is. Still, we found two clear passages using a plural none with plural referents including Judges 21:9 (“None of the people of Jabesh Gilead were there”) and—what else?—Proverbs 2:19.
The New King James Version, consciously based on the original King James but also trying to come close to typical everyday speech, used the singular none with plural referents seven times and with plural referents twelve times. It mostly seems to follow the “not one” or “not all” pattern: “There is none among them who calls upon me” [Hosea 7:7] or “None of the mighty men have found the use of their hands” [Psalm 76:5]. Still, some cannot be explained that way. So Acts says, “None of these things move me,” but Acts 26:26 says, “None of these things escapes his attention.” This may actually reflect everyday speech: No one thinks too carefully one way or the other since both can sound right.
So What Do More Contemporary Grammar Authorities Say About All This?
So far, we have seen that, since the middle of the sixteenth century at least, English writers use none as both a singular and a plural. It appears that Kolln’s idea that none can mean either “not one” or “not all” is making sense. What do actual grammar books say? Most grammar books follow the lead of Lowth or Murray. This is true for what they about none. Out of twenty different authorities we checked, only two stated categorically that none had to be singular. Seventeen stated that both singular and plural were acceptable depending on the context. One book from the 1930’s stated that none is technically singular but that its use as a plural “is becoming established.” [Allen, 99] We tried to find as many older texts as we could because we thought that they might be more strict and more prescriptive than some modern texts.
Of the two books which said that none ought to be
singular only, one was dated 1949; one, 1969. Both simply included none
in a list of singular indefinite pronouns such as everyone, nobody, one,
and the like. Texts which took the other side frequently listed none
with plural indefinite pronouns like all and some. Some of the
books also note the etymology of none as coming from not one but
call the strict singular usage of none “a widely held misconception” [Schutt, 142] or as having “some merit” but “by no means a
binding rule” even calling the singular only usage “rare and stilted” [Ehrlich
and Murphy, 1967]. Several suggest that some newspaper style guides use none
only as a singular and that practice has somewhat influenced modern views
[Morris and Morris, 413; Success with Words, 471; Lewis, 131]. In its
explanation, Success with Words quotes the famous lines from Andrew
Marvell, a neoclassical poet and contemporary of
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
One text gives a sample sentence with not one and a sentence with none which illustrates that the argument according to etymology is not highly regarded: “Not one of the stories appeals to me” but “None of the glasses were imported” [Warriner and Griffith, 113, 114]. Warriner is considered by many to among the strictest of the modern grammar texts. New York Times columnist and grammar curmudgeon William Safire is even more pointed. He accepts none as both singular and plural and then says that if you mean not one, then say not one! [Safire, 194, 195].
We even found two contemporary sources which would take different sides on the merit of our research itself! One 1957 dictionary of usage says:
An analysis of English literature shows that from the time of Malory (1450) to the time of Milton, none was treated as a plural once for every three times it was treated as a singular; and from the time of Milton to 1917, it was treated as a plural seven times for every four times that it was treated as a singular [Evans and Evans, 321].
Another author of a similar work originally published in the 1950’s dismisses the whole idea of counting historical instances in which a certain construction of none was used. Awkwardness is the key to his understanding. Writers and speakers can decide for themselves whether or not the construction is awkward! [Follett, 227]
When All is Said and Done…
Still, we can take a look at the way none has been used and draw some conclusions. For at least four hundred years in English and American literature, none has regularly been treated as both a singular and a plural indefinite pronoun. Regardless of the strict etymological sense (none<not one), none has been used as a plural by even the most careful English writers and translators. A check of both concordances and grammar authorities bears this conclusion out.
I. General Works
The Bible Library. CD-ROM.
The Holy Bible. King James Version.
Open Bible Edition.
Kolln, Martha. Understanding English
Grammar. Second Edition.
Murray, Lindley. English
Grammar Adapted to Different Classes of Learners.
Milton, John. Complete
Prose Works of John Milton. Vol. 2. Ed. Ernest Sirluck.
Prose Works of John Milton. Vol. 5. Ed. French Fogle.
and Algeo, John. The Origins and Development of the English
Language. Third ed.
II. Bible Concordances
Ellison, John. Nelson’s
Complete Concordance of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
Hartdegen, Stephen. Nelson’s Complete Concordance of the
New American Bible.
Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance to the Bible.
Thomas, Robert L.
New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.
III. Literary Concordances
Bates, Steven L. and Orr, Sidney D. A. ed. Concordance to the
Poems of Ben Jonson.
Broughten, Leslie N. and Stetler,
Benjamin F. A Concordance to the Poems of Robert Browning.
Vol. 3. 1925; rpt.
Cooper, Lane, ed. A Concordance to the Poems of
William Wordsworth. 1911; rpt.
ed. The Marlowe
De Rose, Peter L. and McGuire, S. W. A
Concordance to the Works of Jane Austen. Vol. 2.
Ellis, F. S. A Lexical Concordance to the Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 1892; rpt.
Catherine, ed.. A Concordance to
the Complete Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt.
and Swain, Kathleen, ed. A Concordance to Milton’s English Poetry.
Irey, Eugene F., ed. A
Concordance to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Vol. 2.
Kinneway, Gerald Byron, ed. A
Concordance to the
Mann, David, ed. A Concordance to the Plays of
ed. Concordance to the Poetical Works of John Dryden.
Ogden, Marlene and Keller,
Parrish, Stephen Maxfield. A Concordance to the Poems
of Matthew Arnold.
Rosenbaum, S. P. ed. A Concordance to the Poems of Emily
Spevack, Martin. A Complete and
Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare. Vol. 5.
Sterne, Laurence and Kollmeier,
Harold H. ed. A Concordance to
the Prose Works of John Milton.
Tatlock, John S. P. and Kennedy, Arthur G, ed. A Concordance to the Complete Works
of Geoffrey Chaucer.
IV. Twentieth Century Sources on Usage
Frank. Effective English.
Battles, Howard K. and Packard, Charles. Words and
Sentences: Book Five.
Ehrlich Eugene and Murphy, Daniel. Speed Grammar.
Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage.
Ed. Jacques Barzun.
Hodge, John C. and Whitten,
Morris, William and Mary. Harper
Dictionary of Contemporary Usage. Second Ed.
Pence, R. W. and Emery, D. W. A Grammar
of Present-Day English.
Safire, William. What’s the Good Word?
Schutt, Warren E. Effective Written English.
Semmelmeyer, Madeleine. Practical
English. Ed. Donald O. Bolander.
Success with Words.
Christine and Gibney, Frank, ed. Britannica Book
of English Usage.
E. and Griffith, Francis. English Grammar and Composition: Fourth
Winkler, Anthony C. and McCuen, JoRay. Rhetoric Made Plain. Fourth Ed.
Watkins, Floyd C. et al. Practical English Handbook. Second Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.