Q: As an SAT writing instructor, I am intrigued by your Grammar Myths page, which debunks the rule that “none” is always singular. Since the College Board follows this rule, we have thousands of students learning to write sentences like “None of the chickens is hatched.” What do you think about that?
A: What do I think? I think it’s unfortunate that the College Board may be penalizing students who are in fact using the language correctly by writing, “None of the chickens are hatched.”
It is not true that “none” always means “not one.”
It is true that “none” is an etymological descendant of the Old English pronoun nan, which indeed is a combination of ne (“not”) plus an (“one”). But “any” is also descended from the Old English an, and historically “none” has always been closer in meaning to “not any.”
As you know, “any” can be either singular or plural; it can refer to “any of it” (as in “any of the mail”) or to “any of them” (as in “any of the letters”). Hence these sentences are both correct: “None of the mail was delivered” … “None of the letters were delivered.”
As my husband, Stewart Kellerman, and I write in our book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language:
“It seems that ‘none’ has been both singular and plural since Anglo-Saxon days. Alfred the Great used it as a plural back in the ninth century, when he translated a work by the Roman philosopher Boethius. Although the OED lists numerous examples of both singular and plural ‘nones’ since Alfred’s day, it says plurals have been more common, especially in modern times.”
Let me also quote Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “Clearly, none has been both singular and plural since Old English and still is. The notion that it is singular only is a myth of unknown origin that appears to have arisen late in the 19th century.”
Here’s the advice I give in my grammar book Woe Is I: If “none” means “none of it,” treat it is as singular (“None of the merlot is open”); if “none” means “none of them,” treat it as plural (“None of the carafes are full”). And if you mean “not one,” then say or write “not one.”
I hope the College Board is not also perpetuating the myths that it’s incorrect to “split” an infinitive or to place a preposition at the end of a sentence or to begin a sentence with a conjunction. These, too, are well-known grammatical misconceptions that are alien to the syntax of a Germanic language like English.
If any visitors to the blog would like to read more about these and other myths of English, check out Origins of the Specious.