Question: “I heard this sentence on the news last night: ‘None of them were hurt.’ Isn’t that incorrect? I thought ‘none’ was always singular.”
Answer: First, I’m glad no one was hurt in whatever the situation may have been. Second, to answer your question, we need to talk briefly about notional agreement.
Many people learned in school that indefinite pronouns like “none” and “some” should always be treated as singular. I think the reasoning behind this is to keep things simple – sort of like how you introduce math with only positive, whole numbers at first.
Now, however, I think we’re ready for notional agreement.
So what is notional agreement? To borrow from our friend the dictionary: “a grammatical construction which is based on sense rather than form.” This is something you use inherently all the time – although you might phrase it more along the lines of “that sentence just sounded weird.”
For example: “None of the boys was hurt.” It sounds weird because the object of the preposition, “boys,” is right next to the verb, “was,” even though we know that the verb needs to agree with the subject of the sentence, “none.” To make it harmonize with what our ear expects, we need the verb to agree with the implied subject of the sentence, and thus we need to use notional agreement.
“None,” along with the pronouns “all,” “some,” “any” and “such,” can be used in both singular and plural forms. This is because it can mean either “not one” or “not any.” Two quick examples: “None of the apple was eaten. None of the apples were stolen.”
How do we figure out whether “none” is acting as a singular or plural pronoun? We look at the implied subject, or the noun which the pronoun is ultimately replacing. In the case of the example sentences, we find the implied subject as the object of the preposition – but it doesn’t have to be there.
The idea of notional agreement allows for the author to make the final call – so if you decide you always want to use “none” as a singular pronoun you can probably get away with it. However, don’t be afraid to make “none” and its fellow indefinite pronouns plural (you may need to bring along a dictionary to back you up with some folks, though).