When you’re thinking about singulars and plurals, you often consider whether you have one or many of something, but the word “none” is tricky because it’s nothing—it’s not one or many of something.
The truth is that ”none” can be singular or plural, but many people believe it can be only singular. First, let’s talk about the singular.
The word 'none' can be singular or plural.
'None' Is Singular
When "none" means roughly “not one” or “no single one,” it’s followed by a singular verb. It also takes a singular verb when it’s followed by a mass noun, like “water”:
None of the water is polluted.
'None' Is Plural
When "none" means roughly “not any” or your sentence has a sense of plurality, “none" can take a plural verb, and it often sounds more natural. Here's an example:
I talked to the boys, and none of them are coming to the party.
What Should You Do?
You may be chided by the uninformed when you follow "none" with a plural verb, but don’t be afraid to do so if your sentence calls for it. The AP Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style, Garner’s Modern English Usage, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Note all say it’s fine to use a plural verb with the word “none” if it means something like “no two,” “not any,” or “no amount of these things.” In fact, the American Heritage Usage Note gives many examples from important writers and even throws down an example from the King James Bible:
All the drinking vessels of king Solomon were of gold … none were of silver.
Sometimes either a singular or a plural verb will work:
None of them is brave. (Not one of them is brave.)
None of them are brave. (Not any of them are brave.)
In cases like that, you can use the word that sounds more natural to you, or you can also just use the singular verb to play it safe. (None of them is brave.)
That’s your Quick and Dirty Tip. “None” can be singular or plural. Try to decide whether it means “not one”—in which case it’s singular—or “not any”—in which case it’s plural. And If you aren’t sure, “none is” is safer.
Example of 'None' as Singular
An email to the Dear Sugar column in the New York Times, from a woman whose close friend is dating her ex and lying about it:
I feel certain she has swallowed up all the good in life and none is left for me.
An example from the Anchorage Daily News in which a business owner is talking about an otherwise great employee who is having trouble relating to customers.
My employee can be a bit awkward and I wonder if customers misunderstand her and take offense when none is meant.
In both those examples, “none is” is the only choice. They’re talking about abstract things like the good in life and offense, and “none are” would sound ridiculous.
But it’s not just abstract things that take a singular verb. “None is” also makes sense when you’re putting the emphasis on one thing among many:
Omarosa Manigault Newman, a veteran of reality TV’s “The Apprentice” and former White House aide, makes a number of shocking claims about President Donald Trump in her new book, but perhaps none is more consequential to the nation than her portrait of him as a man in “mental decline.”
Examples of 'None' as Plural
This one is about a mysterious woman seen in a doorbell surveillance video in Texas.
Authorities said they have gotten several tips from people who believe the woman matches the description of a missing person in their area. Deputies said Sunday that they continued to comb through the reports, but added that “as of now, none are believed to be the (woman) in the video.”
That one clearly has a sense of being plural because we are talking about multiple women. “Not any are believed to be…” makes sense.
In this example from the National Review, the writer is pondering why there are no celebrated mavericks among Democratic lawmakers:
Democrats loved John McCain, but none of them want to be him — that is, none are even remotely interested in building their careers on defying party orthodoxy the way he did…
That one also has a strong sense of being plural because we’re talking about multiple politicians. “Not any of the them is remotely interested…” makes sense.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”