Word Court


JIM PHILPOT, of Cookeville, Tennessee, writes, "In last November's Word Court you wrote, 'None of the major Romance languages—languages directly descended from Latin—have retained …' Shouldn't have have read has? Or is the equivalent of not one considered a plural form?"

Not one (ahem—please notice I didn't say none) of a dozen leading usage manuals and dictionaries that I checked agrees unequivocally with you that none has to be singular. The Associated Press Stylebook does agree with you, though, that the word should have been singular in my sentence. It says, "Use a plural verb only if the sense is no two or no amount: None of the consultants agree on the same approach. None of the taxes have been paid." But most of my reference books say that none may be used with either a plural or a singular verb and that the plural use is more common. A few books suggest that we try to avoid the singular use because it sounds stilted.

Evidently many people believe, as you do, that none is equivalent to not one. But this isn't quite right. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage succinctly explains why not: "The Old English nan 'none' was in fact formed from ne 'not' and an 'one,' but Old English nan was inflected for both singular and plural. Hence it never has existed in the singular only; King Alfred the Great used it as a plural as long ago as A.D. 888." Thus none can mean not any or no part as well as not one.

When should none be singular, then? Bryan A. Garner presents the contemporary majority opinion in the grammar-and-usage chapter of The Chicago Manual of Style: "If it is followed by a singular noun, treat it as a singular {none of the building was painted}; if by a plural noun, treat it as a plural {none of the guests were here when I arrived}." And what if you really do mean not one? Both The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and Patricia T. O'Conner's Woe Is I advise you to say that instead of none.

Alex Previdi, of Summit, New Jersey, writes, "My mother yells at my siblings and me for using the phrase that one or this one. For instance, 'Which pillow was the most comfortable?' 'That one was.' She insists the answer should just be 'That was.' I finally told her I wasn't sure that one was actually improper grammar. Could you please settle this family feud?"

I'll bet what your mother has in mind is that that (or this) can be a pronoun, and it can refer to a pillow—so why bother with the word one? But that and this can also be adjectives, modifying nouns or pronouns—as in "Do you want that pillow or this one?" Here this one is perfectly normal phrasing: one is standing in for pillow, so that that and this can be parallel, as adjectives. The example you gave is similar: Which one? That one.

I don't know who is responsible for the idea that that alone is better English than that one, but I do know that your mother isn't the only person who has been taught this; I've received other letters on the subject. Language authorities, however, are more likely to make a different point about the pronouns this and that—namely, that these words shouldn't be used alone unless readers or listeners will easily be able to figure out what they refer to. (This is different from saying they should always be used alone if people will be able to figure them out.) Consider this exchange: "Mom! Can I take the pillow away from her? She's hitting me with it!" "That couldn't hurt." What couldn't hurt: taking the pillow away from her, or being hit with it? Saying "Doing that couldn't hurt" or "That pillow couldn't hurt" would make the meaning clear.

Maynard Lassonde, of Altamont, New York, writes, "What would you do if you were asked to edit a piece of writing that included the following sentence? 'Your comment peaked my interest.' The writer intended the conventional meaning: 'Your comment inspired me to think about your topic.' I suggested to the writer that peaked should be replaced with piqued. The writer objected, so I did a little research. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, by Walter W. Skeat, explains that peak and pique have a common heritage. I'm just an amateur editor, but I don't think this justifies the use of peaked. Do you?"

No. The verbs peak, "cause to come to a point," and pique, "provoke," diverged in meaning centuries ago—if indeed they do have a common heritage, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is far from certain. Even if they do—the way, for instance, picket, as in "picket fence," and piqué, "a stiff fabric with a raised pattern," do—that hardly implies that nowadays they're synonyms.

Do you have a language dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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