A Word, Please: Sometimes singulars are also plurals

A reader named Judy recently wrote to say it bothers her to hear "None were there" in place of "None was there." Then a reader named Richard noticed this news headline, "Disabled couple win right to live together," and he wrote to ask: "'Couple' is singular, right? Should say 'wins right.' Right?" And though these two people are asking about different words, at the heart of their emails lies the same question: Can a word be both singular and plural?

The answer is yes.

The word "none" catches the attention of a lot of language observers. It takes top billing on many people's peeve lists. Logically, many figure, "none" takes a singular verb because it means "not one." So it makes sense you would say, "None of my friends is coming," with the singular verb "is" corresponding to the singular pronoun "none." From that, they infer that "None of my friends are coming" is an error.

But the real error here is the assumption that there's only one correct form. Language doesn't work that way. Often, there are a number of correct ways to say the same thing. For example, it's just as correct to say "in a couple of decades" as "in a couple decades." And most of us go through years of schooling without ever coming across this useful bit of information: Some words can be either singular or plural.

According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, the primary definition of "none" is "not one." If it stopped there, then Judy's peeve would be dead on. "Not one" is definitely singular. But Webster's also defines "none" as "no persons or things" and gives this example: "Many letters were received but none were answered." Note the plural verb "were." This tells us that both "none was" and "none were" can be correct.

How do you know which to use? It's up to you. If the "none" you have in mind is just one, then use a singular verb. Otherwise, you can use the plural verb.

Me, I like to lean toward a dictionary's first definition. So I usually treat "none" as singular, but anytime it sounds better with a plural verb, I use one without hesitation.

The noun "couple" works the same way. American Heritage Dictionary sums it up nicely: "When used to refer to two people who function socially as a unit, as in a married couple, the word couple may take either a singular or a plural verb, depending on whether the members are considered individually or collectively: The couple were married last week. Only one couple was left on the dance floor."

Interestingly, evidence suggests that "couple" has more properties of a plural noun than a singular one. Here's American Heritage again: "When a pronoun follows, 'they' and 'their' are more common than 'it' and 'its': 'The couple decided to spend their (less commonly 'its') vacation in Florida.' Using a singular verb and a plural pronoun, as in 'The couple wants their children to go to college,' is widely considered to be incorrect. Care should be taken that the verb and pronoun agree in number: 'The couple want their children to go to college.'"

The important lesson here is that no lesson is needed. By using "none" and "couple" the way they come naturally, people usually get them right without even trying. The danger, of course, is that a lot of people don't realize this. So your reader or listener could think you're wrong if you use "none is" or "the couple are." But you can decide for yourself how much to care what an uninformed reader thinks about your grammar.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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