In the closing sentences of last week’s column about Super Bowl and Super Tuesday, I unwittingly set off some readers’ usage alarms. Talking about terms like Tsunami Tuesday and Super-Duper Tuesday, I wrote: “But none of these amplified epithets have managed to displace good old Super Tuesday.” That’s right — I used none with the plural verb have instead of singular has. I then continued: “A Google News search currently finds nearly 20,000 articles referencing Super Tuesday in the past month, compared to less than 1,000 for Super-Duper Tuesday and less than 500 for Tsunami Tuesday.” Less than 1,000, less than 500? Not fewer? Eagle-eyed commenters were to quick to pick up on both of these usage points. I’d like to say I hid these in the column as a test for readers, but I wasn’t that clever. It does provide a good opportunity, however, to take a look at two of the more contentious debates over English usage in modern times.
Let’s start with the less versus fewer distinction. The general rule of thumb, as outlined by usage guides like Garner’s Modern American Usage, is that fewer is used for things you can count and less for things you can’t — in other words, one is for count nouns (like books or children) and the other is for mass nouns (like butter or money). But that rule of thumb has never corresponded very well to actual usage, since less has been used with countable things since the early days of English. The prescription limiting less to mass nouns apparently arose in the eighteenth century and eventually became enshrined in the grammar books. Even though it might seem like a minor point of usage, it’s one that people often feel very passionately about. New York Times columnist William Safire prides himself on the fact that one of his “On Language” columns convinced the Safeway supermarket chain to change its express-lane signs from “10 items or less” to “10 items or fewer.”
Even those who favor restricting less to mass nouns recognize that it can be appropriate for certain kinds of countable things, such as units of time or money. It makes sense to say “less than five hours” or “less than ten dollars” because hours and dollars aren’t really thought of as individual units in those contexts. Large numbers also tend to be understood as amounts rather than collections of discrete units. Hence, I felt perfectly comfortable saying “less than 1,000” and “less than 500,” even though I was enumerating items that are technically countable (articles on Google News). Others will obviously disagree, since this has become such a disputed point of usage, but it’s best not to be too doctrinaire in such matters.
The same can be said for the use of none with plurally marked verbs. In many cases none is best construed as singular, as if it were a shortened form of “not one.” But some insist that none should always be singular, in the belief that it can only be understood as “not one.” Historically, there’s a grain of truth to this, as the word’s Old English predecessor, nān, was formed from ne ‘not’ and ān ‘one.’ But the Old English word could be inflected as singular or plural, so the etymological argument ends there. Still, the idea of none as equivalent to “not one” took hold among some grammarians by the turn of the twentieth century. A hundred years ago, in The Standard of Usage in English, Yale professor Thomas R. Lounsbury pointed out that none had long been used as the subject of plural verbs without anyone complaining about it (much like the use of less for countables). Lounsbury gives numerous literary examples of plural none, from Bacon to Shakespeare to Browning, before concluding, “There is no harm in a man’s limiting his employment of none to the singular in his own individual usage, if he derives any pleasure from this particular form of linguistic martyrdom. But why should he go about seeking to inflict upon others the misery which owes its origin to his own ignorance?”
Lounsbury made his case convincingly. As recounted in an article from the May 31, 1908 New York Times, the professor pulled a reference off of his shelf to show the reporter that his view of none had become accepted, in opposition to the notion that it must always be singular. That reference? The latest volume of the New English Dictionary, later to be known as the Oxford English Dictionary. “In later use commonly with plural verb,” the NED noted of none, nonjudgmentally. And yet even today, as Garner’s observes, “some stylists and publications insist that none is always singular, even in the most awkward constructions.” Most style guides disagree: the New York Times stylebook, for instance, says for none, “construe as a plural unless it is desired to emphasize the idea of not one or no one — and then it is often better to use not one or no one instead of none.” Will that persuade any of the remaining singular-none acolytes out there? I suspect if this argument doesn’t do the trick, then none are going to.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here