September 4, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: None, About/approximately

Posted in About/approximately, None (singular or plural) at 10:00 am by dlseltzer

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(Thanks to Judy Lave and Bill Gardner for this sighting.)

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Tip 1: None: singular or plural

Tip 1 is inspired by a recent question from a reader:

I’m reviewing a tragic manuscript and want to be grammatically correct. Is this sentence right?

“There are too many publications cited here, none of which is particularly relevant.”
(NOTE: The above sentence has been modified to protect the identity of the tragically-inclined author.)

There is a tendency to think of “none” as a synonym for “not one,” thus, requiring a singular verb. This is just not true, folks. “None” can also represent “not any (people or things),” and, in this context, “none” can be appropriately used with a plural verb.

Many men have tried, but none have succeeded.

The study section members were seated but none were willing to criticize the investigator.

Please keep in mind, that the following sentences are also correct:

Many men have tried, but none has succeeded.

The study section members were seated but none was willing to criticize the investigator.

It really depends on the context and whether “none” is referring to a singular or plural person or thing. If “none” suggests “none of them,” it takes a plural verb. If “none” suggests “not one” or “none of it,” it takes a singular verb.

This corn was picked today, but none of it is as sweet as I had hoped.

The ears of corn are really sweet, but none are as sweet as the beets.

The problem is that sometimes it is impossible to tell, from the context, whether “none” is intended to be plural or singular. If this is the case, you can use either; however, the preferred default is to use a plural verb. Going back to the original question:

There are too many publications cited here, none of which is particularly relevant.

There are too many publications cited here, none of which are particularly relevant.

Both are correct.

Tip 2: About and approximately

This tip is dedicated to bob arnold, who, for close to twenty years, has put up with me replacing his every use of “about” with “approximately.” That’s a lot of “abouts” I’ve doomed over the years. Well, I’m ready to admit now that bob was right, and I was wrong. (Sorry, bob.)

For some reason, I decided that “approximately” was more appropriate than “about” in formal writing. It seemed more precise and more sophisticated–neither of which is true; it merely has more syllables. These days, I opt for simplicity and clarity, and tip 2 is this: When you mean “about,” use “about.” “Approximately” adds nothing but additional letters.

1 Comment »

  1. sandrar said,

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.


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