And Then There *Was* None

In which I defend (what I perceive to be) a misused contraction

Contemporary English is known for its contractions and portmanteaux (oh, and theft). As the language has developed and spread, these shortenings–much like the shortening in a recipe–have been transformed to serve many different purposes. One is so commonly abused, however, that it’s hardly considered a contraction anymore: none.

But it is a contraction. It’s short for “not one.” And that changes the context in which it’s often used. If more people recognized it for the phrase it shortens, fewer people would use it incorrectly. That said, the incorrectness has reached a point of sounding correct to most speakers, and most speakers aren’t inclined to fix what they think isn’t broken. (To quote a contraction-laden adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”)

While I, filled with the vim and vigor of the young year, am going to insist that it is broken. And defend it accordingly.

The question came up recently among some coworkers, a couple of whom pointed out the error of the phrase “none of them [the plans] have worked out” in a story, the other couple of whom persevered in the idea that it was not an error. To be clear, pluralization in the case of “none” is now widely accepted. Countless people hear, read, and say “none of them have” without batting an eye.

Others, myself included, are discomfited. Here’s why: the verb following “none of them” refers not to the “them” (the collective) directly preceding it, but to the “none”–that is, the “not one.” And you wouldn’t say “not one have worked out,” but instead “not one has worked out.” Ergo, the full phrase would read “not one of them has worked out.” The appearance of the singular verb conjugation “has” right next to the plural pronoun “them” is what many English speakers find jarring and what leads them to believe the verb should reflect the collective.

As with just about any linguistic bastardization to enter the vernacular, this one stems from a misunderstanding of traditional grammar. Or perhaps just from being out of touch. In the above phrase, the “none” appears far enough back that a reader is led to think whatever verb they use (in this case “to have”) cannot possibly apply to it. It must apply to “them,” they reason, because “them” appears immediately before the verb. To me, this assumption indicates a lack of familiarity with complex sentence structure; Americans especially tend to prefer simple sentences. Sentences used to wind on for ages in the days of yore–and all the verbs had to agree. Nowadays, we reply “k–Sent from my iPhone.”

At the end of the day, is all this truly a bad thing? As much as I sound like an old fogey with rigid ideas of how to speak and write, I genuinely am trying to embrace these quirks as they emerge. Language must evolve, otherwise it dies. We live in an age of myriad vehicles for linguistic transformation, some of which don’t involve words at all. There’s no telling where we’ll go from here. *insert dizzy-face emoji* If English, a notoriously difficult language to learn, is going to survive the transitions, it’s too much to hope for it to remain intact as I learned it.

“But you’ve just droned on about how ‘none’ is broken!” you say, wielding your torches as you advance on my house. And that I have. A few grammatical standards are too near and dear to my heart for me to remain silent in the face of their erosion. So you can find me arguing for this one until my dying breath. Hey, a gal’s got to have principles.

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti is a New Englander living in Berlin, Germany, with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. She writes and reads for a living; the rest of her time goes toward singing, dancing, drawing cartoons, trying to finish her Netflix queue, and devoting far too much thought to the foibles of her artist-heroes. Follow her on Twitter (@CeciliaGelato), Instagram (@c_m_giglio), and YouTube (Lia Lio),

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