Sarah gobsmacked, nearly crashes the car

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My appearance on NPR nearly caused a car crash. Sarah Ferrell wrote in the NPR comments area: "I was in the car and rushed in to comment–I am gobsmacked." I can just see that Volvo careening around the corners on the way back from the supermarket and screeching to a halt in the driveway, and Sarah leaping out of it screaming, running to the house and dashing up the stairs to the computer…

But a willingness to drive dangerously in one's lust to get home and write comments doesn't always go along with a willingness to think or write carefully. Her comment goes on:

Pullam's explanation of why "none" should NOT be followed by the singular "is," but rather "are" or "were" is ABSURD!! One of the basic tenets of English grammar is to achieve subject verb agreement–just because his favorite authors used "were" and "are," does NOT mean that WE should. I for ONE have no problemm with the concept that verbs should match their subjects!! English is a very complex, fluid language and I assert that this rule STILL STANDS. It has been the cutsom for some time now.

That's right, she calls me "Pullam", and uses spellings like "problemm" and "cutsom"… This is a woman too out-of-control furious to be trusted with either the keyboard or the car keys. But never mind that: her hands are still shaking from that last quarter mile of drag-race driving. What we need to consider is the substantive point: that it is "ABSURD" for me to deny that a subject with the determiner none could take plural agreement.

Now, first, I did not say that she shouldn't use singular agreement. She can speak and write any way she wants. All I ask of her is that she stop at the stop sign at the end of the street even if there is a linguist on Talk of the Nation. It is certainly true that we do not have to follow in our 21st-century speech the syntactic usage of the late 19th century. But my point (at least as set out in the article that I was on NPR to talk about) was that Strunk and White had no evidence to back up their claim that none of us are (plural agreement) is incorrect.

Second, Sarah can't just announce that it must be none of us is because "verbs should match their subjects": that begs the question. The very question at issue here is which is the form that matches. I looked for evidence about that.

Third, I didn't look at my "favorite authors". I would rather eat live worms on cold toast than read fin-de-siècle chick lit like Anne of Avonlea. I chose three well-known works published between Strunk's 20th and 40th birthdays, since those would be the sort of works that would tell us what occurred in literature at the time when he was planning to write a book telling his students to use the singular with none.

Fourth, my results were astonishingly univocal. What I found was that there happened to be no occurrences of none of us taking singular agreement, while there were occurrences in each work I looked at that took plural agreement. I report, you decide. I might be wrong: a search of a hundred novels of the period might reveal that I had the horrible luck to hit three anomalous cases of editorial error, and all the rest of the instances of none of us in the late 19th and early 20th centuries took singular agreement. So if you think that, get to work and prove it.

I have kept my part of the bargain: Strunk and White say singular only, and I checked up on them in a sensible way. The literature I looked at says only plural agreement occurs. I conclude that on the basis of this evidence we should assume that it is plural agreement on the verb that correctly matches a subject like none of us. (You may assume instead that Oscar Wilde didn't know basic English grammar. It's a free country, you can voice that unsupported opinion if you want.)

In the rest of her post, Sarah said she "almost choked" when I mentioned redundancy, because I "had used the British ‘have got’ earlier in the show". One Britishism and you are toast with this woman. You don't say have got in her house.

"Even though he's American," she went on, "his language is STILL tainted with this silly, repeated error. This guy's a bozo. I don't care what he calls himself, I will continue to try to (not AND) speak correct American English." (Check the NPR discussion rules, Sarah: "If you can't be polite, don't say it. … try to disagree without being disagreeable … positions, not personalities. No personal attacks, name calling, libel, defamation…" — no bozo allegations. Those are the rules.)

You may be getting confused about my nationality at this point, since Sarah is counting me as an American but accusing me of not having rid myself of a British taint. There have also been repeated accusations of Scots ethnicity levelled against me on the blogs and in the comments areas. I had better provide a brief bio.

Through a temporary accident of parental location, I actually was born in western Scotland. But calling me "a Scot" would be really misleading. I was there for only a few months, and never spoke a syllable with a Scots accent. I was raised from infancy in southern England by English parents. My college education was in northern England (York), and I spent some time at the universities of Cambridge and London.

I then escaped Britain in the Thatcher era, and moved to the west coast of the USA for a full 25 years. I fell in love with America, and became an American citizen. During the six years from 1996 to 2001 I spent some months each year in Australia to work with Rodney Huddleston on The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and began to sound slightly Australian occasionally.

My move from the University of California to the University of Edinburgh is recent history (2007), and eastern Scotland is still new to me (and wonderful, by the way). But Edinburgh is so cosmopolitan that I have more American colleagues than Scots: I work with many American scholars (like psycholinguist Fernanda Ferreira, the head of Psychology here), and our boss is an American who is the Head of the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences (Bob Ladd). And each evening I go home with my wife, an American philosopher.

In short, I have half a lifetime of experience with British varieties of English and half a lifetime of experience with North American varieties too. My accent is now a rather odd mixture of American and British, modifiable to some extent under voluntary control (to British audiences I say class with the same vowel as spa, but to American audiences I say it with the vowel of span).

And I can tell you one thing: I do not conclude that someone is a "bozo" from the fact that their speech includes Americanisms, or Britishisms, or Australianisms. I try (and oh, it is hard some days) to muster a little tolerance. Even with closed-minded people and out-of-control drivers.

And let me offer one little word of praise: Sarah Ferrell is at least attempting to address things that I actually said. Most of the comments at NPR consist of a ridiculous parade of word peeves, nothing to do with Strunk and White or grammar or anything that I said. They just want a place to rabbit on about words or phrases that bug them ("went missing"; "graduated high school"; "party" as a verb…). No connection to the radio program at all. Sarah says I'm a bozo, and claims to be "GREATLY saddened that a supposed expert would throw fuel on the fire of Americans' fear of grammar"; but unlike some of the peeve-listers, at least she shows some signs of having had the radio on.

[The comments area below has been thoroughly cleaned. It had become fouled with a great deal of nitpickery, whining, nagging, quibbling, squabbling, snarling, answerbacks, gotchas, and troll-feeding (some of it by me, I regret to say), and other signs of an untidy site (like tedious correcting of errors that had already been corrected, and so on). My criterion is that the comments area should actually make Language Log a better and more informative place to visit, not a less friendly and more combative place. I have tried to keep the comments that genuinely made a contribution by opening up useful lines of questioning or proposing interesting answers. The rest is mostly gone, I think. I'm sorry if you made a comment you really valued and it is now gone, but remember that Language Log is not supposed to be serving as your personal memo pad or bulletin board. —GKP]


  1. Karen said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    "Gobsmacked"? She was "gobsmacked"?

    I'm sorry, Sarah, but that's not even a word. Check your Merriam-Webster Unabridged if you don't believe me – none of those fancy British dictionaries on THIS side of the Atlantic.

  2. bulbul said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    A propos:

    I will continue to try to (not AND) speak

    I've been noticing this construction all over the place lately. Has it been discussed here at the Log?

    [The construction where try and Verb replaced try to Verb with the same meaning has been discussed under the name "hendiadys" for many decades in traditional works on English grammar. It does not appear to have received attention on Language Log. It is somewhat less formal than try to, but well established and very common, in literature as well as conversation. There's nothing particularly wrong with it. Those who prefer not to use it are welcome to continue using the to infinitive with try. Not something to get in a big stew about. But for Sarah… —GKP]

  3. phleabo said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

    Oh my – you've got a fanclub:

    Pullum tells it like it is, as always, with grace and humor.
    If you're on Facebook, please join the new group for fans of Geoffrey Pullum:

  4. Lee Morgan said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    "I've been noticing this construction all over the place lately. Has it been discussed here at the Log?

    I'm not sure if it's been discussed but it's a known syntactic construnction called pseudocoordination. At least, that's what I've heard it called. It's not true coordination; i.e., the verbs aren't actually conjoined. Semantically it doesn't seem to be any different from an infinitive marker.

  5. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

    Although she says that "have got" is a Britishism, as I did too when I had to teach it here in Spain, I quickly found when I looked at how me and my friends talked and wrote that in American English it's used, but normally (I won't say always but pretty much so) contracting or even eliding the initial "have": "I've got to go." "Yeah, I've got cable." "What do you I don't have enough? Of course I got enough (in present tense)."

  6. Brett said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

    To my American ear, when "have" is contracted, the "got" is practically mandatory if possession is to be expressed. "I've cable," sounds just barely grammatical and hopelessly stilted. "I've to go," is downright ungrammatical.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    Sarah Ferrell wrote, in one of her comments at about Geoff Pullum's review of Strunk and White: I am gobsmacked.

    Michael Quinion on gobsmacked: It’s a fairly recent British slang term: the first recorded use is only in the eighties, though verbal use must surely go back further. […]. It comes from northern dialect, most probably popularised through television programmes set in Liverpool, where it was common.

    [Gob is of course from the Irish Gaelic word for "mouth". There is a huge amount of Irish influence around Liverpool, so it's quite plausible that the borrowing of the word into English might have started there (though that is not a dialectological claim, just a pointer to an obvious hypothesis). —GKP]

    Sarah Farrell continued: I almost choked when he mentioned redundancies–he had used the British "have got" earlier in the show!! I don't know what their fascination with this particular redundancy is, but it annoys the heck out of me. Even though he's American, his language is STILL tainted with this silly, repeated error.

    Mark Twain (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom speaking): "Why, it's ha'nted with whiskey! Maybe all the Temperance Taverns have got a ha'nted room, hey, Huck?"

    [Or see these citations for have got from Life on the Mississippi…]

    So, having begun her comment with "a fairly recent British slang term", Ms. Ferrell tells us that she "almost choked" because Geoff Pullum's speech is tainted with the "silly" "British" "error" of using have got, just like that notorious Eurotrash wannabe, Tom Sawyer.

    It's really interesting — and I mean this sincerely, with no irony intended — that comments sections dealing with questions of usage are so likely to feature people who are so absolutely certain about things that are so easily discovered to be so completely false. I once thought that such people were simply careless about the truth. But I've concluded that falsehood is actually a key part of the appeal, since by determining that a piece of standard formal English is an error, one gets to feel superior to almost everyone.

    This sort of behavior is often successful in persuading insecure people to give ground, so that those who practice it apparently find it rewarding, and become as fond of it as Ms. Farrell obviously is ("I was in the car and rushed in to comment").

    But please note that this is exactly what Will Strunk did with however and none of us and so on. He asserted, in a forceful and authoritative voice, that some common patterns in standard formal English are grammatically incorrect; he persuaded generations of insecure Cornell undergraduates to accept his inventions; and his student E.B. White replicated the behavior on a global scale.

  8. Stephen Jones said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

    The preference in favour of the singular form is more or less the same in British English as in American English. 176 (sing) to 63 (pl) in the BNC and 680 (sing) to 274 (pl) in the COCA. Another false intuition (the singular is more common in American English) bites the dust.

    Apparently zero is more singular when it is 'neither' than when it is 'none', though mathematicians would disagree. The figures for 'neither of + pron' are 61 to 10 in British English and 302 to 44 in American English.

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

    GKP: try and … well established and very common, in literature …

    Out of interest, Googling books (prior to 1950 so we don't get any accusations of modern taint):

    "I will try to" – 3300 hits
    "I will try and" – 1432 hits.


  10. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

    @GKP: Why bother with anything Sarah Ferrell says or thinks? Why not just ignore her? And likewise just ignore all the "ridiculous parade of word peeves" in the NPR comments?

    [(myl) I won't speak for Geoff; but in my opinion, such parades of peeves are a rich source of evidence about the psychodynamics of usage advice, as discussed in my earlier comment.]

    [And let me just point out what Alfred Hitchcock said about why a heroine in a suspense film of the kind he made would not just go back in the bedroom after hearing the noise, lock the door, and phone the police, instead of wandering out in her nightdress to have a frightening encounter in a shadowy hall. Hitchcock said: "There'd be no film." Of course we could loftily ignore the semi-deranged things that intelligent people say about usage when their blood is up, and remain silent about other people's peeves. We'd have a lot more time to sit around playing cards. But there would be no Language Log. Or at least, not so much of it. If you don't like Language Log I'd say, why bother with it? Why not just ignore us? —GKP]

  11. Dierk said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 2:53 am

    Good reason to reprimand idiocy: The world is in the state it is in because educated and intelligent people usually give in.

    There is a German saying 'Der Klügere gibt nach' ['Discretion is the better part of valour' is the translation chosen by Collins German-English, English-German Dictionary, 5th ed.] asking the more intelligent to yield in an argument. The outcome is that those with wrong impressions rule the world, the ones swerving dangerously with their cars …

  12. Lugubert said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 4:19 am

    GKP: "The construction where try and Verb replaced try to Verb with the same meaning has been discussed under the name "hendiadys" for many decades in traditional works on English grammar."

    Fascinating to a Swede, because in writing, we encounter a superficially identical phenomenon, but for other reasons:

    "Försöka att" ('try to') has the infinitive marker, and "försöka och" features the copula. But here, I think the reason is that "att" as well as "och" are pronounced [o] in normal speech.

  13. Picky said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 4:30 am

    The current S&W (which follows the 2000 edition, I think) has very grudgingly slipped the leash on plural after "none", I think you'll find.

    Standards just going down the drain, huh?

    [This is an interesting little point, which in the Chronicle article I didn't have space to mention (I left out of the article vastly more of the things I wanted to say than I kept in). In the 4th edition (2000) and its 2009 re-issue in black leather, and also in the 3rd (1979; hence probably also in the 2nd [1972] and the 1st [1959]), on page 10, it says that "None of us are perfect" is wrong, and you should say "None of us is perfect" instead. This directly contradicts the evidence I adduced from literature of Strunk's time (None of us are perfect is the very sentence Dr Chasuble utters in The Importance of Being Earnest). But then, interestingly, Strunk and White add this:

    A plural verb is commonly used when none suggests more than one thing or person.

       None are so fallible as those who are sure they're right.

    So that does slip the leash a bit. But the question now is how to delimit the instances in which Strunk and White want to disparage plural agreement. Does none of us suggest more than one person? Well, if there are N of us, and none of us could be said to meet the standard of perfection, that makes N altogether who are not perfect, so the plural (None of us are perfect) should be correct. Strunk and White have contradicted themselves.

    What, then, is their actual position? What we are confronting is the disaster of basing grammatical description on soft, fuzzy, unexplicated, intuitions about meaning and logic. If you want to say that the plural agreement is forbidden wherever a certain semantic condition fails to hold, you need to specify that semantic condition carefully. Strunk and White have not done that. This is just one of my reasons for concluding that they are virtually useless on grammar: sometimes if you did follow what they say you would be out of step with English as it is actually used by its best writers, and sometimes you cannot follow them because it isn't clear what they have told you to do. —GKP]

  14. David said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 5:05 am

    Pseudocoordination is also very common in the Scandinavian languages, where I suppose prescriptions vary depending on how "pseudo" the coordination really is.

    Example 1: "I will try to/and buy…"
    Swedish previously: "Jag skall försöka att köpa" = "I will try to buy"
    Swedish today: "Jag ska försöka köpa" = "I will try buy"
    Norwegian (spelling approx.): "Jeg skal försöke å köpe" (and)
    Danish (also approx.): "Jeg skal försöge at köbe" (to)

    (My silly Swedish keyboard doesn't allow me to write Dano-Norwegian ä's and ö's. So much for Nordic cooperation…)

    Example 2 (much more "pseudo"):
    Swedish: "Jag tar och köper" = "I take and buy" (expressing continuing aspect)
    Norwegian: "Jeg tar og köper" (and)
    Danish: "Jeg tager og köber" (and)
    In all of these examples, the last verb ("buy") is in the present indicative, while it was in the infinitive in Example 1.

    Finally, one can note the Swedish construction: "Jag går ut för att köpa" = "I go out for to buy" (where "for to" expresses some kind of purpose ["I'm going out in order to buy"], and where "buy" is in the infinitive), where the word "att" is very often pronounced /å/, just like "och" ("and"), so we write "to" but say "and" – and you can actually find attestations of "och" in literature as well according to "Svenska Akademiens ordbok".

    So it's not just in English that the choice between "and" and "to" is quite complicated…

  15. Arnold Zwicky said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 5:46 am

    On try and:
    Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage has a substantial article on this, which points out (a) it's been common in print since the early 19th century (though not in highly formal styles); (b) critics have been complaining about it since the 19th century (though a number recognize it as "an established standard idiom"); (c) repeatedly, over many years, those who disparage it assert that it has only recently become widespread.

    MWDEU also has a compact entry on have got, which notes a number of complexities. Usage is somewhat different for the have got of possession, of obtaining, and of obligation. And there are British/American differences, but these aren't as rigid as some people have thought. The tradition of Americans deprecating some occurrences as redundancies (or simply as errors) goes back at least to Richard Grant White in 1870.

  16. Sigve said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 6:26 am

    Å in David's Norwegian example Jeg skal forsøke å kjøpe is not "and" but "to" (the infinitive marker, not the preposition). "And" would have been Jeg skal forsøke og kjøpe. There is no opposition in speech though, both are pronounced the same [o].

  17. Bloix said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    A hypothesis:

    Intuitively, "none" appears to take on the number of the preprositional phrase that follows it. "None of the cookies are left". "None of the cake is left."

    "All" does the same. "All of the players are suited up." "All of the team is suited up."

    But one of the that everyone has to learn in order to have "proper" grammar" is that the verb agrees with the subject, not the prepositional phrase. "The group of sophomores is coming to try-outs." Not "are coming."

    Doing it the "wrong" way comes naturally to many people. Doing it the "right" way is one of those grammar rules that people use to signal, and to detect, that they are 'educated' (that is, of a higher class status.) People painfully acquire and impose these class-signifying rules on their own speech, and they are proud and protective of the status that, they believe, they afford them.

    The Strunk & White rule can be viewed, perhaps, as an example of hyper-correction, whereby the malleable nature of of "none" is forced to bow to the subject-object agreement rule.

    Then, when Prof Pullum takes to the airwaves to explain that "none" is a special case, some listeners infer that he means that the 'wrong' and lower-class speech pattern, in which the verb agrees with the phrase and not the actual subject, is being recommended.

    That threat to social status is what provokes the anger.

    Just a thought.

  18. acilius said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    @Bloix: I'd say that's an admirably clear exposition of a thoroughly plausible hypothesis. Thank you!

  19. Picky said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    Well, Bloix, let's just remember what the S&W rule actually is – effectively: use the singular verb when "none" seems singular, and plural when it seems plural. OK, they say that through gritted teeth, but that is what they are saying. I can live with that – how about you?

  20. Bloix said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

    Picky – I was relying on Prof P's statement that "Strunk and White say singular only." If S&W don't actually say that, well, that's worth mentioning. I haven't owned a copy of S&W in years and years, so I can't check. Can you cite chapter and verse?

  21. Picky said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    See Prof Pullum's comment on my comment, a few yards up this post.

  22. Picky said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    Page 10, as the good prof says. It reads:

    "With none, use the singular verb when the word means 'no one' or 'not one.' "

    And then they give their non-preferred version "None of us are perfect" and their preferred version "None of us is perfect."

    Then they say:

    "A plural verb is commonly used when none suggests more than one thing or person."

    And their example is:

    "None are so fallible as those who are sure they are right."

    Now, as Prof Pullum says, there is total lack of clarity of what THEY think sounds singular or plural. But it is not the case that S&W (at least in its present incarnation) says that none with a plural verb is per se wrong.

  23. bianca steele said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

    I like Bloix’s explanation too. I think there is something else going on, in addition to what he writes.

    The way grammar is taught in the United States is dependent on a theory. This theory is codified at the university level in schools of education (with the help of linguists, such as some of those on this blog), in order for it to be taught to public school teachers. That’s where current American “prescriptivism” comes from and that’s where the negative response to Geoffrey Pullum’s comments on Strunk & White appear to be coming from.

    Americans’ ideas about grammar aren’t just things individual speakers and writers made up after reflecting for about five minutes on how they talk and write. From where these commenters are coming from, Pullum is denying the validity of the scientific knowledge they were taught as valid for all time.

  24. Stephen Jones said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    Except that Nathan's rule fails on "Where's the cake?" "Sorry! None of it *is* left."

    How about 'Where are the cakes?' 'I'm sorry none of them are left?'

    It's not the 'none' that's deciding the agreement here. As the 'it' must be referring to an uncountable noun, then the zero part will follow the behaviour of the whole and take a singular verb, always.

  25. Stephen Jones said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    Well, Bloix, let's just remember what the S&W rule actually is – effectively: use the singular verb when "none" seems singular, and plural when it seems plural.

    Strange, I always thought zero was neither singular nor plural.

  26. Stephen Jones said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    Oh, and while we're at it let's repeat verb agreement 001.

    There are three factors affecting verb agreement.
    a) grammatical or syntactic agreement.
    b) semantic or notional agreement
    c) proximal agreement

    In an ideal utterance all three of these are the same but the problem arises when they are not. As zero is less than one there is the feeling that 'none of' and 'neither of' should take a singular verb, since the plural is for more than one. On the other hand where the noun or pronoun after 'of' is plural, as it is next to the verb proximal agreement pulls the other way.

  27. Ray Girvan said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

    bianca steele: From where these commenters are coming from, Pullum is denying the validity of the scientific knowledge they were taught as valid for all time.

    In short, cognitive dissonance, and way beyond the normal difficulty in un-learning things learned early on. As others have said, these are memes intimately linked to self-belief in superior status, and having that status undermined is instant "Shields up!" – especially if GKP's Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory is right, and we're talking about people for whom "order, continuity, tradition, discipline, self-control, authority" are central to their self-esteem.

  28. Irene said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    I laughed out loud at Ms. Ferrell's "English is a very complex, fluid language and I assert that this rule STILL STANDS." So, English is fluid, but must remain fixed. Hmm.

    And I'm sorry, but to me "none" stands for "not one" and takes a singular verb. If you don't like, "None of us is going", then say, "We are not going" or "Not one of us is going."

    [Hold on, hold on: if we don't like the way you make verbs agree with none, then we have to say things differently?? This is the fascist control mentality that Language Log tries (in vain, it sometimes seems) to struggle against! No, Irene, if you like to say None of us is going, that's fine, because you have a perfect right to speak the way you speak; but that has no implications for the rest of us. Those of us who find None of us are going grammatical and natural seem to have Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker and Lucy Maud Montgomery on our side; but we are not aiming to alter your speech. My remarks were about whether William Strunk had been right to assert that only people who use the singular agreement are right, and everyone else is wrong. I don't say the singular is wrong; I say there is variation here. But I claim Strunk's anti-plural stipulation was wrong by the standards of the literature of his own time, and it's still wrong now. Speak and write the way you want to; but you're not everyone. And anyone who says that none of us can only take singular agreement is giving stupid grammar advice. —GKP]

    [(amz) As is so often the case, a look at MWDEU would be instructive. Even if etymology justified the "rule" requiring singular agreement for none — which, of course, it does not — this etymology is only half right. Old English nan was indeed composed of ne 'not' and an 'one', but it had both singular and plural forms (Alfred the Great used the plural form in 888), and has taken both singular and plural agreement in all periods of English. The appeal to etymology was apparently first put forward by Lindley Murray in 1795 — but as an argument that singular agreement should be allowed, not that it should be required. Later, someone — we don't know who — formulated singular agreement as a "rule of grammar".]

  29. Ellen said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

    There seems to be a certain sense to what the book says. If one is thinking of "none" = "not one", then a singular verb: "not one of them is going", thus "none of them is going".

    But, in a sentence like "None are so fallible as those who are sure they are right.", apparently, they instead see them sense that it's saying that more than one person is fallible, so "are". And here a "not one" substitution doesn't really work.

    Bad style advice, I think, and worse grammar, but a certain logic to it. Of course, one shouldn't expect language to always be logical, let alone always follow one's own logic rather than some other logic.

    [Ellen, I'm afraid I disagree with both your concessions to Strunk and White. First, the fact that none originates as (something like) a contraction of not + one doesn't mean it acts syntactically today the way that phrase would act, so you can't conclude that the singular agreement follows. Agreement properties don't follow from etymology. Second, I don't agree that a "not one" substitution doesn't work in the None are so fallible sentence: you could say it means "Not one is so fallible as those who are sure they are right. (There's nothing wrong with comparing one with a group: you can say No one here is as snooty as those guys.) It's your third paragraph that has it right: never expect grammar to follow from logic. —GKP]

  30. Ellen said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

    I'm NOT conceding that single agreement follows. I'm saying I there's a certain logic to it. Note that I noted that language doesn't follow logic. Nor does etymology have anything to do with it. I'm not saying I agree with the logic. I'm saying I can see it.

  31. Steve said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

    In my personal use of "none", I seem to follow something like what Strunk & White proscribe, as I am not consistent in using either singular or plural verb agreement. When I use "none" to mean "not one" it is singular, as in: "None of us is able to drive a stick shift". However, far more often I use "none" to mean "zero", and then I treat it as plural, as in "None of us are going to the movie".

    The distinction that I think I see between them is in the number that would be implied if the statement was false. Depending on context, the negation of "none" can be either "one" or "some" and the grammatical number changes depending on which it is. At most one person will be driving the vehicle with the stick shift, so in that context "none" makes the most sense as a singular noun. In contrast it's fairly likely that several people would go to a movie together if any were to go, so none is plural in that case.

    The example given by S&W, "none of us is perfect", is more ambiguous. I would be more likely to say "none of us are perfect" in isolation, but in context it might make sense as a singular: "Is someone here perfect? Let him step forward!" "No, none of us is perfect."

    I don't actually want to be defending the Elements of Style, which I have been lucky enough to avoid in my academic career. Strunk & White seem to have picked the less common grammatical case to recommend, and their examples and guidance are ambiguous and confusing to the extent that I'm not surprised that none of their actually understands what they were trying to say. It would probably be better if they hadn't made a suggestion regarding "none" at all.

  32. Picky said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 4:42 am

    I find the "zero" meaning problematic because the forms "zero of" – like "nil of" and "nought of" – aren't available to me, whereas "none of" and "neither of" are both available in my English, and each takes either singular or plural verb depending on context/whim.

  33. Mark F. said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    I actually think 'zero' is grammatically plural. There is a definite discomfort with using it as a counting number, but when it happens I think you use the plural noun:

    She has had zero parking tickets.
    *She has had zero parking ticket.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    I am surprised at None of the cake is left and at the lack of comment on it: cake refers to something inanimate, and here it behaves like a mass noun (some cake, a piece of cake), not a count noun. I would use none (sometimes with singular, sometimes with plural) for a person or at animate being: none of the cats, OK, but not none of the cakes. If the whole cake has been eaten, I would say There isn't any left, not There is none left. Is this a personal rule I unconsciously made up as a second language learner, or does it have a basis in fact? I would expect people who think that none means not one and has to behave like it to object to the use of none for a mass noun.

  35. Ellen said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    Your replacement sentences leave out the word "cake", so they aren't equivalent. I do think that, as something spoken, "none of the cake is left" sounds formal, and "There's no cake left" is what I'd say. But as written English it sounds just fine, though an unlikely subject to be discussing in writing.

  36. marie-lucie said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

    To me (living in English Canada for decades) the following sound natural: Is there some/any cake left? – Sorry, there's no cake left/There isn't any cake left/There isn't any (of it) left but There's none (of it) left doesn't sound right. That's why I am asking.

  37. Picky said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    marie-lucie: To this BrE ear "there's none left" is just as natural as, perhaps more so than, your other versions, although they're OK for me, too. "It's all gone – there's none left": yep, that's fine.

    [(myl) You should be mindful of the effects described in "When 'there's' isn't 'there is'", 9/1/2005. ]

  38. Picky said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    @myl – Indeed – just after I submitted that I turned "They're all gone – there's none left" through my internal ear and decided that I could say that, but probably because of the difficulty of saying "there're none left" – although I can say that, too, and it sounds less informal.

  39. marie-lucie said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

    One of Agatha Christie's best novels is And then there were none, a title which refers to a rhyme about 10 little ornamental figures which get broken one after the other. Surely Agatha Christie, although not remarkable for a stylistic point of view, spoke and wrote Standard English.

  40. Irene said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    Wow! I think this is the first time anybody has even noticed a comment I have posted. I guess I should be unintentionally provocative more often.
    As my second sentence began with, "I'm sorry but to me…" I assumed readers would understand that I was expressing my preferences.

  41. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

    Perhaps our Gobsmacked Sarah is a Susan Boyle fan?

  42. Picky said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 4:37 am

    "And then there were none" was the title adopted for the US edition, and later worldwide. The original (and presumably Agatha's) title was different, but was thought offensive in the US (although I suppose Agatha must have approved the US title, too).

  43. marie-lucie said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 7:45 am

    Yes, Picky, I didn't want to go into that issue. The book had two different titles in England, of which I think Ten Little Indians is the most common one. But And then there were none is the final line of the rhyme, following And then there were nine/eight/seven/etc until And then there was one and finally And then there were none. Thus there is a clear distinction between one, which takes the singular, and none, which takes the plural as it clearly refers to countable nouns.

  44. Picky said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 8:01 am

    Oh, absolutely, m-l: I understand the argument, and its fine by me if it refers to this particular context … I was just wondering about the extent to which this usage could be ascribed to Agatha Christie. And anyway it's a quote from a rhyme which I think was probably not in standard English in the first place.

  45. Squander Two said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

    Tolkien had trouble with American subeditors, who kept correcting his English, including changing try and to try to. He apparently spent rather a lot of time trawlling through the drafts and changing back all their corrections.

    I'm often struck by the level of sheer arrogance that grammar proscriptivists must have instilled in these subeditors. I mean, they're editing Tolkien, and, rather than being content with fixing typos, they actually believe they write better English than him and set out to improve the text by repairing his inferior usage. No doubt they were reading through the work thinking "What a bozo!"

  46. Ellen K. said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    Maybe I'm too generous, but seems to me it could have been ignorance instead of arrogance. As in, ignorantly unaware that someone (Tolkien in this case) might actually want to write "try and" or whatever it was they were correcting, and thus assuming it to be a mistake.

  47. Ray Girvan said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

    Picky: I was just wondering about the extent to which this usage could be ascribed to Agatha Christie.

    Her novel came out in 1939. Lessee in Google Books:

    "there was none" – 6,940 hits
    "there were none" – 4,330 hits

    Post-Christie (excluding book title):
    "there was none" – 5,520 hits
    "there were none" – 3,940 hits

    Proportions before and after don't look wildly different, and the pre-Christie hits show how strongly established "there were none" was in a variety of contexts. It can't even be blamed on the rhyme; that apparently dates to 1869, but "there were none" can again be demonstrated prior to that in various formal publications, disposing of the idea that it's not standard.

  48. Picky said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 5:18 am

    Oh, sorry – here's me complaining about S&W's lack of clarity, and then making a complete idiot of myself with a simple comment. To be clear: I'm absolutely certain plural verb after "none" is part of the standard language; absolutely certain it is more common than singular verb.

    marie-lucie was suggesting that the A. Christie title was evidence that the usage was standard – I was querying whether that was good evidence – but it really doesn't matter: the fact is the evidence from Christie isn't needed; the evidence is all around us in standard speech and writing, and as far as I know always has been. It was a very small point, and I wish now I hadn't made it!

  49. marie-lucie said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    After mentioning the Christie novel earlier, I decided to reread the book. At one point, when about half of the characters have been mysteriously murdered on a small island, the survivors get together to look for the hiding-place of the murderer. After they fail to discover any sign of him, one of them says: "There's no one on the island, I tell you. No one!." I realized then that none cannot be equivalent to no one: "There's none on the island" would be impossible here. "No one" could only be replaced by "nobody", not by "none", which would have to refer to a previously mentioned noun phrase.

    It was mentioned in an earlier LL thread that "none" is actually a continuation of Old English nan. It is not surprising then that this word cannot be equivalent to "no one" and does not have the same syntactic and semantic properties. It seems that "none" shares the possibility of agreeing with a singular or plural verb with the other indefinite "all": "All is well" and "All are well" are both grammatical, but with different meanings. Ditto for "There is none" and "There are none". ( I have not consulted the CGEL about this).

  50. Mark Liberman said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    Literature Online indexes "more than 350,000 works of English and American poetry, drama and prose". A couple of quick searches return

    "none of [us|them|these|those] [are|were]" 53+31+134 = 218
    "none of [us|them|these|those] [is|was]" 46+4+29 = 79

    where the three subtotals are in poetry, drama, and prose, respectively.

    A couple more:

    "none [are|were]" 860+234+493 = 1,587
    "none [is|was]" 818+171+390 = 1,379

  51. Mark Liberman said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    Similar counts for this afternoon's Google News:

    "none of us|them|these|those are|were" 2,245
    "none of us|them|these|those is|was" 390

    "none are|were" 2,252
    "none is|was" 1,483

  52. Geoff Pullum said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 3:55 am

    Very interesting figures there from Mark. But let me remind readers: no part of what I have been saying implies there's anything wrong with writing "None of us is interested." Write it if you like it; there are many Standard English users out there who use such locutions when they feel it's right. What I've been saying is that there are absolutely no grounds for declaring "None of us are interested" to be ungrammatical. What Mark's figures are showing is that this latter kind of locution is dramatically more common as well. The two claims — that both occur and are grammatical, and that the latter is more common — are entirely compatible. And they are different. My claim was about what was grammatical, and my use of corpus data was just a spot check in 1900-ish literature. Mark's evidence is statistical. The relation between the two is not antithetical, but it is indirect.

  53. Cromwellt said,

    May 13, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

    I agree with Professor P. that Ms. Ferrell was begging the question and I appreciate his openness to being proved wrong. I was also going to mention that I (as a person who has lived almost all his life in the US and none in the UK) use "have got" frequently, but only in certain circumstances. In my experience in AmE, "have" is never contracted as a main verb (though it often is as an auxiliary) and "have got" is uncommon, but not unknown, to describe possession. It is fairly common to describe obligation ("I've got to go."). Of course, when describing acquisition, "have gotten" is standard AmE, in my experience. While "have got" is more common in the UK, especially when describing possession, calling it a Britishism (or is it Briticism, as my online spellchecker is telling me?) is not fully accurate.

    But that wasn't my main comment. :) I actually wanted to thank Professor P. for his short biography. Hearing his voice was an interesting experience, and I was trying to analyze his accent throughout the whole interview (while I was paying attention to the conversation, of course). Now that I know that his life was spent half in the UK and half in the US, I can understand why his accent seemed somewhat British but also somewhat American. I don't know if I detected any Australian influence, but then, I've never been there. I was a little disappointed that all the callers were so civil and more or less in agreement with Professor P., because I would've liked to hear a staunch S&W supporter soundly beaten. A good debate (civilly conducted, I hope) would've livened things up a bit.

    The comments here on parallels in other languages are fascinating, as are the comments regarding Twain, Tolkien, and Agatha Christie. I think Irene's comment was in good faith, simply explaining her point of view (as she says), and the "if you don't like" was the impersonal "you", not an instruction to others. Perhaps there was an ellipsis:

    And I'm sorry, but to me "none" stands for "not one" and takes a singular verb. If you [want to follow what I think but] don't like, "None of us is going", then say, "We are not going" or "Not one of us is going."

  54. merri said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    It has been said and written before that the rationale behind sentences like 'England win' is that the team is composed of more that one person. Agreed.
    But then, since 'none' is fewer than two persons, it seems difficult to explain on which logical basis it would require plural form;

    Now, if somebody objects that official sentence forms take preeminence over logic, then he/she may use plural, but that's not my cup of tea.

  55. MikeyC said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 5:26 am

    The BYU-OED corpus (900s to 2000s) shows this:

    none of * is – 8
    none of * are 19

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