“Good sense is a thing all need, few have, and none think they want.” — Benjamin Franklin
“I strove with none; for none was worth my strife.” — Walter Savage Landor
Whether none should be singular or plural is the kind of question that makes the nonprescriptive linguists feel smug and superior. But people who work in publishing know that some standards are needed — even if not the same ones for every book.
So, which is correct?
- None of the editors really understands language.
- None of the editors really understand language.
The first sentence presumes that none takes a singular verb, the second sentence that it takes a plural verb. I think more people would be likely to use the second formulation in ordinary speech, but some editors insist that none should be considered equivalent to “not one,” and therefore should take the singular.
That sounds plausible — except that it’s nonsense. None derives from an Old English word that is related to the German nein. Its constellation of meanings centered on the concept of “not any,” but there is no reason to consider it a strict equivalent to “not one.” In fact, back in the early twentieth century even old tight-assed Henry Fowler, in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, urged writers to avoid the singular.
The reality is that sometimes none takes the singular and other times the plural. Rather than think of it as equivalent to “not one,” think of it as sometimes used that way and other times used as equivalent to “not any.” Thus:
- None of the linguists are good writers [not any of them can write]
- None of us is the chosen one [not one of us is Harry Potter]
In other words, you have to use your judgment. Sometimes you could go either way. Trust your ear — after all, there are none so deaf as those who will not hear.