Viewers like me might’ve cringed last Sunday watching HBO’s “The Undoing” and hearing Nicole Kidman’s character be corrected by her British mother-in-law for saying “none of us are” instead of “none of us is.”
Toward the end of the series’ fifth episode, “Trial by Fury,” I sat up, not because of anything gruesome, like the bludgeoning of Elena Alves (played by Matilda De Angelis) in episode one, but because Janet Fraser (Rosemary Harris) was trying to school Grace Fraser (Kidman) not in forensic science but in grammar. Drama!
Some context is in order: Janet is married to Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant), who’s on trial over Elena’s murder. Jonathan says he didn’t kill Elena, though he admits he did have an affair with her and is the father of her second child.
In the scene in question, Grace, who lives in New York, is Skyping with Janet, who’s in the UK, trying to learn more about a traumatic accident in Jonathan’s childhood that might give us some insight into his present debacle.
Janet: How is he? I can’t imagine well.
Grace: No. None of us are doing great.
Grace: I’m sorry?
Janet: “None of us is doing great.” “None” is a contraction of “not one.” It’s singular. The verb is singular.
Record scratch. Kidman’s character says nothing. After a moment, they go on to talk of other things.
Is the mother-in-law correct? Must “none” take a singular verb? Her correction is, in fact, misguided. Usage experts would agree, too.
Emily Brewster, an editor at Merriam-Webster, has explained that while it’s true that “none” is based on an Old English word meaning “not one,” that same Old English word could be either singular or plural.
And though Grace’s mother-in-law is English, this is not a difference between British English and American English.
“The fact is,” Brewster says, “that ‘none’ has been used with plural verbs for more than a thousand years.”
If nothing else, it’s stilted and unidiomatic to say “none of us is.” None of us sings songs anymore? None of us is working late?
The late, great Bill Walsh, who was a copyeditor at The Washington Post, might’ve tossed the so-called rule “‘none’ is always singular” into his bin of “rules that aren’t,” or language myths.
He put it concisely in “Yes, I Could Care Less,” writing that “sensible grammarians agree that none usually means ‘not any,’ not ‘not one,’ and thus gets the plural verb more often than not.”
The English-usage guru Patricia T. O’Conner, writing in “Woe Is I,” offers this easy way to decide whether “none” — that “two-faced word”! — is singular or plural.
- If it suggests “none of them,” it’s plural: None of the fans are fighting. None are excited enough.
- If it means “none of it,” it’s singular: None of the bout was seen in Pittsburgh. None was worth broadcasting.
She notes: “When you really do mean ‘not one,’ it’s better to say ‘not one,’ and use a singular verb: Not one of Holyfield’s fingers was broken.”
None of us sing songs anymore. None of us are working late. Those sound much better.
Those who stubbornly believe that “none” must always take a singular verb — as the Janet Fraser character believes — do so at the risk of uttering absurdities.
Claire Kehrwald Cook, in “Line by Line,” offers sample “traps” that such stubbornness can lead you into:
Obviously, none of the parallel roads meets.
None of the parts fits together.
The singular “none” in those sentences makes no sense, she says. It also grates on the ear.
Those sentences should read:
Obviously, none of the parallel roads meet.
None of the parts fit together.
So when in doubt, go with the plural.
Which leads us back to Kidman’s character, who had it right after all. “None of us are doing great.”
No undoing necessary.