“None of them is” or “None of them are?”

Which of the following is correct:

It’s ok! None of the coffee is on my shirt!

I called the guys, and none of them is coming.

I called the guys, and none of them are coming.

(Oh man, usually when he asks Which one is correct? they’re all correct and he expects us to amazed. Watch)

Well, you might actually be amazed to find out that they’re all correct!

(*sigh* See?)

But why are they all correct?

I think the first one is straightforward: you couldn’t possibly use the plural verb are with coffee.

But a lot of people might argue over the other two sentences.  I think most people would say the third is correct, because we’re referring to the guys, plural. The verb therefore needs to be plural.

However, there are those who argue that the verb should be singular, because none actually means not one, and the verb should therefore agree with none, and be singular. These people do have etymology on their side, as none is derived from the Old English nãn, meaning not one, itself derived from a combination of the words ne (not) and ãn (one). Despite that though, none + are often just feels more natural for a lot of people when they use it with plural verbs. For them, none means not any, rather than not one.

Because there are convincing cases for both usages, they’re both considered acceptable. But back to that first sentence: obviously none has to be considered singular there, but is there a simple, easy-to-understand rule to explain why it can only be singular there, but in the other sentences it can be singular or plural?

Yes. Yes there is.

  • With an uncountable noun (also known as a mass noun), none is always singular. With a countable noun, none can be either singular or plural.

That’s it. If you’re not sure if a noun is countable or uncountable, there are two questions that can easily tell you:

  • Can I count it?
  • Can I make it plural?

If the answer is yes, it’s countable.

If the answer is no, it’s uncountable.

Think back to the coffee in our example above. The coffee in the cup is a liquid mass, and therefore can’t be counted as individual units. But, you might say that it’s also possible to go to a café and order two coffees, so you can count coffee. Well, in a way, yes, but coffee in that case is an abbreviation of cup of coffee. But coffee the substance is uncountable. If you don’t believe me, spill some on the ground and try to count it.

Food and drink are useful for identifying countable and uncountable nouns: coffee, milk, rice, and pasta are all uncountable. Potatoes, eggs, apples, oranges: all countable.

So now you know the difference between countable and uncountable nouns, and hopefully, when none can be singular or plural. Can your day possibly get any better?

12 thoughts on ““None of them is” or “None of them are?”

  1. I would have thought that – technically – it should always be ‘is’ because ‘none’ is a contraction of ‘not one’ – so you are in every case – technically – referring to a single individual – this ‘one’. However, sometimes it does sound awkward and stilted. I would say, say whatever feels right in conversation but stick to the logic of the rule in written work, or better still find a workaround.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Whatever feels right is usually a good rule of thumb. I used to always treat “none” as plural, until I read about it meaning “not one,” and went completely in the opposite direction. Now I’m comfortable using whichever makes most sense. You can basically use “is” all the time and be right though, whereas “are” only works for countable nouns.

      Like

  2. Or “nun of the above.” These visual puns are habit-forming.

    I like Waitrose in the UK. Their express checkouts have a sign, “Ten items or fewer.” All the other supermarkets’ signs read, “Ten items or less.”

    But… English grammar changes gradually. Does anyone say, “Whom did you see?” these days? Nowadays I’m sure even HM Queen would say, “Who did you see?”

    Have a grammatical day, won’t you?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m not surprised it’s the poshest supermarket that insists on “fewer!” Using “less” in place of “fewer” always sounds terrible to my ear, but even though I know when to use “whom,” I never really use it. Probably because the two words sound so similar, it doesn’t feel like you’re using the wrong word.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s