Rule: The word none is versatile. It has a plural sense (“not any”) as well as a singular sense (“not a single one”). When none is followed by of, look at the noun in your of phrase (object of the preposition). If the object of the preposition is singular, use a singular verb. If the object of the preposition is plural, there is more leeway. Most of the time, but not always, you will want to use a plural verb.
None of the pie was eaten.
None of the children were hungry. BUT None (as in, “not a single one”) of the children was hungry is not incorrect.
In a sentence like “None were missing,” there is an implicit noun that answers the question, “None of what?” If that noun is singular, none takes a singular verb. If that noun is plural, it is up to the writer and the sense of the sentence to determine whether none takes a singular or a plural verb.
None was missing. (None of the pie was missing.)
None were missing. (None of the cookies were missing. But there may be times when a writer prefers was, as in Not a single one of the cookies was missing.)
Note: Apparently, the SAT testing service considers none as a singular word only. However, according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, “Clearly none has been both singular and plural since Old English and still is. The notion that it is singular only is a myth of unknown origin that appears to have arisen in the 19th century. If in context it seems like a singular to you, use a singular verb; if it seems like a plural, use a plural verb. Both are acceptable beyond serious criticism” (p. 664)
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Posted on Sunday, June 14, 2009, at 2:15 pm
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