A word, please
A reader named Judy recently wrote to say it bothers her to hear “None were there” in place of “None was there.” Then a reader named Richard noticed this news headline, “Disabled couple win right to live together,” and he wrote to ask: ” ‘Couple’ is singular, right? Should say ‘wins right.’ Right?” And though these two people are asking about different words, at the heart of their emails lies the same question: Can a word be both singular and plural?
The answer is yes.
The word “none” catches the attention of a lot of language observers. It takes top billing on many people’s peeve lists. Logically, many figure, “none” takes a singular verb because it means “not one.” So it makes sense you would say, “None of my friends is coming,” with the singular verb “is” corresponding to the singular pronoun “none.” From that, they infer that “None of my friends are coming” is an error.
But the real error here is the assumption that there’s only one correct form. Language doesn’t work that way. Often, there are a number of correct ways to say the same thing. For example, it’s just as correct to say “in a couple of decades” as “in a couple decades.” And most of us go through years of schooling without ever coming across this useful bit of information: Some words can be either singular or plural.
According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the primary definition of “none” is “not one.” If it stopped there, then Judy’s peeve would be dead on. “Not one” is definitely singular. But Webster’s also defines “none” as “no persons or things” and gives this example: “Many letters were received but none were answered.” Note the plural verb “were.” This tells us that both “none was” and “none were” can be correct.
How do you know which to use? It’s up to you. If the “none” you have in mind is just one, then use a singular verb. Otherwise, you can use the plural verb.
Me, I like to lean toward a dictionary’s first definition. So I usually treat “none” as singular, but anytime it sounds better with a plural verb, I use one without hesitation.
The noun “couple” works the same way. American Heritage Dictionary sums it up nicely: “When used to refer to two people who function socially as a unit, as in a married couple, the word couple may take either a singular or a plural verb, depending on whether the members are considered individually or collectively: The couple were married last week. Only one couple was left on the dance floor.”
Interestingly, evidence suggests that “couple” has more properties of a plural noun than a singular one. Here’s American Heritage again: “When a pronoun follows, ‘they’ and ‘their’ are more common than ‘it’ and ‘its’: ‘The couple decided to spend their (less commonly ‘its’) vacation in Florida.’ Using a singular verb and a plural pronoun, as in ‘The couple wants their children to go to college,’ is widely considered to be incorrect. Care should be taken that the verb and pronoun agree in number: ‘The couple want their children to go to college.’ “
The important lesson here is that no lesson is needed. By using “none” and “couple” the way they come naturally, people usually get them right without even trying. The danger, of course, is that a lot of people don’t realize this. So your reader or listener could think you’re wrong if you use “none is” or “the couple are.” But you can decide for yourself how much to care what an uninformed reader thinks about your grammar.
June Casagrande is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.
A word, please
I grew up in a family of people who had a lot to feel bad about. As the middle child, it was my job to make them feel better. “Don’t feel guilty about feeding us Twinkies for breakfast every day. When you think about it, they’re basically rolled pancakes.”
You get the idea.
Making people feel better about their shortcomings became part of my DNA. That explains a lot about my interest in grammar. Most people I meet feel uniquely inadequate in that arena – as though they happened to miss school on the one day everyone else got a comprehensive grammar education. I tell them over and over: “You’re not inadequate. Everyone’s in the same boat.”
Over time, I’ve gathered many bits of evidence to prove it. But none is more striking than the “correct” way to form possessives of singular nouns ending in S.
Here, according to the Chicago Manual of Style, are three correct possessives: James’s words, James’ sake, James’s seat.
Notice how one of those doesn’t have an S after the apostrophe? Bizarre, right? It gets worse.
Here are correct possessives according to the AP Stylebook: James’ words, James’ sake, James’ seat, the boss’s words, the boss’ sake, the boss’ seat.
No those aren’t typos. AP treats James differently than Chicago does. And, yes, some instances of boss have an apostrophe plus S while others have only the apostrophe. If you’re looking for a logical pattern here, my advice is: don’t.
Of course, most people don’t use these publishing guides. They rely instead on books like Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” So here, according to Strunk and White, are some correct possessives: James’s words, James’s sake, James’s seat, Jesus’ words, Jesus’ sake, Jesus’ seat.
From James to the boss to Jesus, there’s not a single one of these examples – not one – on which all three guides agree.
In light of this utter chaos, is it any wonder that grammar can make even the smartest, most highly educated people feel like dolts? Clearly, the fault can’t lie in the individual. It lies instead in crazy rules that seem bent on making people feel dumb.
The book publishing world prefers a system where the possessive of most singular words ending in S take an extra S after an apostrophe, but they make an exception when the next word is “sake.” Many news outlets prefer a system with separate rules for proper names like James and generic nouns like boss, then they tack on special rules that kick in when the next word begins with S. The long-obsolete William Strunk had a classroom system of treating “ancient” names like Jesus as different from everyday names like James.
Plus there are other weird rules thrown in that deal with things like pronunciation.
This is confusion we don’t need. The basic rules for forming possessives are confusing enough – i.e. one kid’s bike, two kids’ bikes, one woman’s bike, two women’s bikes. Luckily, rules for words that don’t end in S are universal. So you don’t have a bunch of books contradicting each other. But still, they can be tough to keep track of. And don’t get me started on plural possessives of words ending in S, like the Thomases’ house. Rules for those, though universal and unflinching, mess almost everyone up.
Want an easy solution for those pesky singular words that end in S? Just pick one the following styles. Either always use the apostrophe plus S: James’s job, the boss’s job. Or don’t: James’ job, the boss’ job. Whatever you do, don’t feel bad about your grasp of the subject. Unlike the late-sleeping parent with the get-your-own-breakfast-Twinkies policy, you’re not to blame.
June Casagrande is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN @aol.com.