In a word: How not one became none
Reader Kerrianne Lindsey wrote to me not long ago with a query about the word none.
"I was thinking today about the word ‘none'. I am guessing that it comes from ‘not one'.
"If this is correct, would it be incorrect to say: ‘There are none?'
" ‘One' is always singular. However, it would sound strange to say something like: ‘There are no cats. There is none.'
"Is this just a rule which has changed with the acceptance of new words, or something that people are getting wrong?"
I loftily replied:
"Once upon a time, none took only the singular verb. Incorrect spoken English has changed that and now ‘none is' and ‘none are' are both considered correct. I'm a pedant, so I say ‘none is'. I'm not sure none, however, is a joining of ‘not one' or if it is a joining of ‘no one'. I must look it up."
Well, I did look it up. It seems that people have been using a plural verb with the word none for nearly 1000 years, according to Oxford, and it's time I got off my high horse on that count. Oxford suggests going with whatever sounds correct in the context - singular or plural.
Ms Lindsey was also correct about the origin. It derives from Middle English words that meant not any one. For those who are unaware, it was once solely spoken English that forced the migration from two or more words to one. To use a slightly iffy example, the epithet bloody is thought by some to be a contraction of by our lady, a reference to Mary, the mother of Christ. Hence the slightly dodgy overtone - it was once (and still is in Muslim nations) considered blasphemous to make references to God or the Holy Family in everyday speech. But you can see how a slurring of the phrase would, over centuries, be reduced to bloody. That derivation is disputed, however. It could also come from the word bloods, a shorthand reference to aristocracy, deriving from blue bloods.
These days, the movement from two words to one is forced by written English, and generally what happens is two words become joined by a hyphen before becoming one word. In the past couple of years, we are seeing a lot of no-one. Indeed, the hyphen is preferred by the Fairfax Media subediting hub, which subs the Waikato Times. At the risk of looking like an out-of-date pedant again, I'm sticking with no one, two words - as long as Oxford does, anyway.
Got a gripe about grammar? Email Deborah Sloan at email@example.com.