None the wiser

A quick Google search of the phrase “none of them was” turns up 5,290,000 results. A similar search, but with ‘none’ used as a plural rather than singular pronoun (“none of them were”) turns up half as many results again: 8,750,000. So clearly the word “none” is used more often as a plural pronoun.

I have always believed – ‘quite’ emphatically (see previous post), and perhaps even obnoxiously – that “none” is a contraction of the words “no one”, and as such it should always be treated and used as a singular pronoun. But I couldn’t have been more wrong, as Fowler points out.

According to Fowler’s Modern English Usage (from a 1949 edition, but that’s modern enough for me), “It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is sing. only & must at all costs be followed by sing. verbs &c.; the OED explicitly states that pl. construction is commoner.”

And sure enough, OED explains more fully:

“In sense 1 of the pronoun, none can be followed by a singular or plural verb according to the sense. If the sense is ‘not any one of’ a singular verb is used, e.g. None of them is any good, while if the sense is simply ‘not any of’ a plural verb is used, e.g. None of them want to come. The use of the singular verb is more emphatic.”

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