xml:space="preserve">

The global-warming skeptics on the right will still be denying climate change when there is beachfront property in Wichita, and the anti-vaccination cranks of the left will not be deterred when  carts roll down the street to collect the dead from smallpox. But none are more persistent in mumpsimus than the usage deniers.

A colleague alerted me to a blog post that highlighted one of my jeremiads about vanishing copy desks, "And then there were none." Flattering, but the writer couldn't resist an attempt to tweak me by commenting, "Shouldn't that be 'And then there was none'?"

Advertisement

Well, no. It's not just that "and then there were none" is a stock phrase, but, as I responded to the blogger, a longtime university teacher, none has been either a singular or a plural in English for more than a millennium, and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage cites Alfred the Great in a usage from A.D. 888.

The blogger's response, "I will humbly accept your interpretation, John—it's your quote and newspaper, after all. But I disagree with you. …  I'll stick with none as a contraction of 'not one.' "

Even if etymology were destiny (a highly questionable proposition), the Old English nan, from which none derives, was inflected in both singular and plural, as MWDEU points out, and the OED says flatly at the beginning of its entry on none, "Many commentators state that none should take singular concord, but this has generally been less common than plural concord." None has pretty much always meant either "not one" or "not any."

But I waste my breath. In English usage, as with climate change and vaccination, no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, counts for much against a stubbornly long-held view, no matter how demonstrably flimsy.

Back to campus in the morning for another go at grammar and usage in the editing class. Perhaps I can still inoculate my handful of students against the major superstitions and shibboleths before it's too late.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement