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Express Yourself: None, sense and nonsense

Miscellaneous - 28th October 2010

Anybody learning to speak a language must sometimes feel as if the entire exercise has been designed to confuse. English is certainly no exception. Having mastered the basic conjugation of verbs, for example, our poor student understands how singular or plural nouns affect a sentence. With plural nouns, for example, he knows that: “All the children were happy,” or: “Three of the children were happy.” If only a single chap is enjoying the party, however: “One of the children was happy.” Straightforward grammar.

All of which leaves our student feeling pleased, until he is asked to explain that the party has been a total disaster. If nobody was happy, we’ve left plural nouns behind and we’ve even left singular nouns behind. We’re down to nothing. We have to apply happiness to ‘none of the children’.

Opinion is divided on how to approach this problem, but the best rule of thumb is surely to decide whether you are applying ‘none of the…’ to a plural or singular noun and then act accordingly. The result will certainly sound right, which is a pretty good place to start.

The idea, for example, that: “None of the children was happy” sounds awkward on the ear to many people, who feel that we are surely assessing the entire group of children in order to reach our conclusion. ‘Children’ is a plural noun and so: “None of the children were happy” sounds more comfortable. (Interestingly, “not one of the children was happy” sounds absolutely fine, which is why some grammarians, who believe the word ‘none’ is a direct contraction of ‘not one’, insist that ‘none’ must always be a singular pronoun. However, most academics acknowledge that the origins of the word ‘none’ are uncertain.)

By extension, therefore, saying: “None of the meeting was interesting” sounds perfectly reasonable, as ‘meeting’ is a singular noun, whereas: “None of the meeting were interesting” is clearly nonsense.

So, if you’re adopting the phrase “none of the noun” in a sentence, apply the verb to the noun and you should be on safe ground.

If none of this blog was useful, or none of the points were helpful, feel free to write in and complain. But not to us.