Question: “On a recent TV show, one of the characters said, ‘We’re in danger. We’re not safe. None of us are.’ My schooling tells me this is so wrong. It should be, ‘We’re not safe. None of us is.’ In other words, ‘Not one of us is safe.’ My ear tells me, though, that ‘are’ is the way to go. What’s your take on it? Maybe I’m really asking two questions: What is the ‘correct’ way and what would Grammar Guy say in everyday speech?” – (Richard Dickinson)
Answer: “None” is a tricky one, because many of us learned an incorrect rule about it in school.
Does “none” always take a singular pronoun? It’s not uncommon to find people think so. Often they learned that “none” means “no one,” and thus is singular. While that’s true, it’s not the whole story.
“None” can also mean “not any” – which would take a plural verb. I’ll let the Oxford Dictionaries break down the issue:
“It is sometimes held that none can take only a singular verb, never a plural verb: ‘none of them is coming tonight,’ rather than ‘none of them are coming tonight.’ There is little justification, historical or grammatical, for this view. None is descended from Old English ‘nān,’ meaning ‘not one,’ and has been used for around a thousand years with both a singular and a plural verb, depending on the context and the emphasis needed.”
It’s all about context, you see. In your sentence above, “none” would be fine to use as a plural pronoun, as it clearly refers back to the “we” used in the two prior sentences. You could also use it as a singular pronoun to mean “Not one of us is safe.” In this case there’s some ambiguity. But that’s OK.
Thanks for writing in. Please keep those questions coming!