Grammarians, grammar geeks, linguists, and editors need a little excitement now and then. We need something to fight about. After all, we’re preserving the civilized world by helping people understand one another, right? A good argument keeps our pencils sharpened and our brains active.
One favorite topic about which we fight is the use of the word “none.” Specifically, is it singular or plural? Does it require a singular or plural verb?
Which of these is correct?
“None of the students is absent.”
“None of the students are absent.”
You might have a preference based on what sounds most familiar to you, but that is a risky way to determine what is correct.
The first camp (singular):
Some argue that “none,” which derives from the term “not one,” must be singular always. This would make the first sentence correct. After all, the subject of the sentence is “none,” followed by the prepositional phrase “of the students.” “Students” is the object of the preposition “of.” Because “none,” meaning “not one,” is the subject, then we need the singular verb “is.”
The second camp (either):
Others argue that “none” is singular or plural depending on what it refers to. For example, in the two above sentences, “none” refers to “students.” We call “students” the referent. Because “none” refers to a plural noun, it is plural, and we need the plural verb “are.” This is similar to finding the antecedent of a pronoun. The pronoun must be singular or plural depending on the word to which it refers.
My side of this argument:
I’m a recent convert to the second camp. I made the switch because 1) this argument makes sense, and 2) “none” has been used this way for centuries.
On some issues, such as “which” vs. “that,” I am a prescriptive grammarian. Regardless of how people (mis)use these words, I stick to the rule. The difference between “that” and “which” is an issue of understanding. These two words communicate different meanings.
On this issue, however, I believe I can safely follow usage patterns and not the “rules.” It doesn’t affect the meaning, which is my most important concern. With this in mind, here’s my advice.
1. Find the word/words to which “none” refers, i.e., the referent.
2. Determine if the referent is singular or plural.
3. Use a singular or plural verb depending on the referent.
A. “None of the furniture is/are clean.”
B. “He discovered that none of the drivers know/knows the direction.”
C. “Have you seen my socks? None is/are where I put it/them.”
D. “None sparkle/sparkles.”
A. is [The referent is “furniture,” which is singular.]
B. know [The referent is “drivers,” which is plural.]
C. are, them [The referent for “none” and the antecedent for “them” is socks, which is plural.]
D. unknown. [We need the referent to answer this one. For example, if we’re writing about jewelry, we need the singular “sparkles.” If we’re writing about diamonds, we need the plural “sparkle.”]