Wisdom From the Grammar Goddess: Is None Singular or Plural?

Diane Sandford is the Director of Library Services for the Washington, DC office
of Fried, Frank, Harris Shriver & Jacobson . She has many years of experience
in editing and as a grammar expert within the firm.

Welcome to a new feature from LLRX: a column on grammar. Grammar? Who cares about grammar? You should. How you write makes a strong impression on all your working relationships. Of course, I’m interested because I find it fun. It can even be billable! I once spent hours meticulously diagramming a section of the CFR for a litigation partner to help him determine the intent of a regulation. He later asked just what the correct term was for people like me – those odd individuals who like to edit, diagram sentences, and debate about things grammatical. I was quick to respond, “Grammar Goddess, of course!”

Every firm can use a grammar goddess (or g-d). With my trusty style manuals, dictionaries, and grammar books by my side, I plan to take a look at common questions of grammar that arise during the work day and share the answers with you. Rarely a day goes by that I’m not asked a grammar question.

  • Should certain words in a title be capitalized?
  • Should a sentence with ambiguous antecedents be recast ? (Yes!)
  • Does a closing quotation mark go before or after the period? (After.)

Recently, a summer associate asked whether the indefinite pronoun none was singular or plural. She asked because she wasn’t sure which form of verb to use with it, singular or plural. I suggested that she think of none as not one, and that quickly resolved the issue.

Indefinite pronouns by definition reference nonspecific things or people. Most of these pronouns take a singular verb, some are always plural, and a few may be either singular or plural. Take a look at the lists below, and you’ll notice that most indefinite pronouns are singular.

  • Singular: another, anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, many a, neither, no one, nobody, nothing, one, other, somebody, someone
  • Plural: both, few, many, others, several
  • Singular or Plural: all, any, none, some, such

A good rule of thumb is to treat most indefinite pronouns as singular and try to remember the few exceptions.

Example 1: Neither of the attorneys (was/were) available for comment.
Think: Not one of the attorneys was available for comment. (singular subject/singular verb)

Example 2: None of the documents (is/are) identified in the brief.
Think: Not one of the documents is identified in the brief. (singular subject/singular verb)

Example 3: Some of the arguments (was/were) weak.
Think: More than one of the arguments were weak. (plural subject/plural verb)

On the surface, indefinite pronouns seem simple and harmless, but they often cause confusion for writers. Try rephrasing the sentence by replacing the indefinite pronoun with some of the suggested variations above, and you’ll usually make the correct choice.

If you are interested in a more extensive discussion of indefinite pronouns, take a look at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (available in print only) or visit www.bartleby.com , one of the most useful web resources for writers, editors, and researchers alike. Simply enter a free-text search or select a specific reference title to search from the pull-down menu (e.g., Strunk’s Style ).

Do you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know .

Posted in: Wisdom from the Grammar Goddess, Writing Skills