None, not one, not any — nary a one

The word “none” gives us fits. Many people were taught that “none” is always singular. Indeed, if you think of “none” as “not one,” then it is singular. But sometimes “none” means “not any” and needs a plural verb. You should choose the verb depending on your meaning.

Both of these sentences could be considered correct:None of us knows the trouble she has seen. (Not one)None of us know the trouble she has seen. (Not any)

Does the second sentence sound better to you? That is because of the plural pronoun “us” in the prepositional phrase after “none.” In fact, some usage experts apply that test to whether “none” should be treated as singular or plural. If we mean “none of them,” use a plural verb. If we mean “none of it,” use a singular verb.

None of the boys want to go fishing with their hypercritical father. (None of them)None of the water spills when the girl carries the bucket carefully. (None of it)

The Associated Press Stylebook considers “none” almost always singular and gives this guidance on when to consider it plural: “Use a plural verb only if the sense is no two or no amount. None of the consultants agree on the same approach. None of the taxes have been paid.” That’s a narrower rule than other experts accept, and I have always found it harder to understand and apply.

Theodore M. Bernstein writes in “The Careful Writer” that “none” should be considered plural “unless there is a definite reason to regard it as a singular.” Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” (Fourth Edition, 2000) has this to say about “none”: “Use a singular verb when the word means ‘no one’ or ‘not one.’ … A plural verb is commonly used when ‘none’ suggests more than one thing or person.”

Diana Hacker, who writes handbooks on English grammar and usage, has a Language Debate posting on none on her Web site.

Keywords: grammar guide, language, writing

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.