Saturday, December 4, 2010

The pronoun “none” can mean either “not one” or “not any”

Is the noun “none” singular or plural? This is a question that I’ve been often asked by readers of my English-usage column in The Manila Times over the past eight years, and the question I invariably give is: “It depends.” It depends on whether the sense intended by the speaker or writer for “none” is “not one”—in which case it’s singular—or “not any”—in which case it’s plural.

In mid-2009, a senior PR executive called my attention to what he thought was my erroneous usage of the pronoun “none” in an explanation I made for the usage choice between “bring” and “take.” By way of reply, I wrote the essay below, “My reason for using the singular verb form for ‘none’,” which I would like to share with you by posting it in this week’s edition of the Forum. (December 4, 2010) 

My reason for using the singular verb form for “none” 

Sometime ago, in response to e-mail I sent out inviting selected people to visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, I received this very interesting reply from a senior PR executive who was currently vacationing in Europe:

“Just wanted you to know I share your passion for correct English usage. Sometimes I feel guilty of being ‘holier than thou’ when I shower my employees with pieces of advice on English communication.

“But you know, we are all human and we do make mistakes, too, or ‘typos’ if you will. We are [as they say] entitled to make such errors once a year.

“Take a look at your first sentence [in the e-mail]: ‘I hope none of you still has a problem choosing between “bring” and “take”...’

“Don’t you think you should instead say ‘I hope none of you still have a problem choosing between “bring” and “take”...?’

“I don’t want to be caught saying, ‘Do you (still) has?’ We should all ask ‘Do you (still) have?’

“Just wondering! (I don’t know the subtleties of grammar, and I certainly don’t know how to conjugate. I write only on the basis of how the sentence sounds.)”

Here’s my reply to the senior PR executive:

You’ve raised a valid and very interesting question about my usage of the singular verb “has” for that sentence.

Actually, the pronoun “none” could be singular or plural depending on how the writer uses it. As noted by The American Heritage Dictionary, “The choice between a singular or plural verb depends on the desired effect. Both options are acceptable in this sentence: None of the conspirators has (or have) been brought to trial.” Here, the sense of “none” could either be “not one” or “not any.”

In my sentence, my intent was to use “none” in the sense of “not one,” so I chose to use the singular form “has” for the verb. Still, it’s perfectly valid to ask: Why not the plural form “have” instead?  

Here’s the reason for my choice:

My basic sentence—with its complicating modifiers removed—is actually this: “I hope none of you still has a problem.” Here, the subject of the sentence is clearly the pronoun “none”; it’s not the plural pronoun “you,” which is simply a part of the phrase “of you” that modifies “none.” In fact, we can further boil down the sentence to this more basic form: “I hope none has a problem.” Here, it becomes much easier to appreciate the logic behind my choice of the singular “has.” Indeed, it would be odd if not grammatically wrong to write or say, “I hope none have a problem.”

Still another way to understand this usage is to analyze this other sentence: “I hope one of you [is, are] willing to help me do the annual budget.” Here, of course, the subject is clearly the singular pronoun “one,” so it obviously makes sense for the verb to take the singular form “is”: “I hope one of you is willing to help me do the annual budget.” Because “you” isn’t the operative subject of the sentence, its closeness to the verb doesn’t in any way determine whether that verb takes the singular or plural form.

With the usage examples the PR executive presented, however, the situation is different. Definitely, you and I don’t ever want to be caught asking, “Do you (still) has a problem with your grammar?” As you pointed out, we should ask, “Do you (still) have a problem with your grammar?” This is because here, the subject is clearly the pronoun “you,” which, regardless of whether it’s meant to be singular or plural, always requires the plural form of the verb. (June 13, 2009)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 13, 2009 © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Next week, I’ll post my follow-up essay discussing an even more compelling reason for using “have” in “do”-questions like the one presented above.

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