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Fight to use singular verb is a losing battle

Time passes. Fashions change. One runs out of gin and similes. On the matter of "none is" and "none are," let us say no more. The plural verb has won, the singular has lost, and this duck is a dead duck.

None of the linguistic authorities can explain how the notion took root that "none" must always take a singular verb, but take root it did. Over the past 20 years the venerable notion has been abandoned. All my Horrid Examples now go the other way. Instead we find:

*From Newsweek, in a column by Anna Quindlen about the Democratic convention of 2004: "None of the sanctioned speakers were supposed . . ."

*From Time magazine, in a commentary on worldwide reaction to terrorist assaults: "None of the lessons are comforting."

*From a New York Times editorial a year ago: "None of these countries, all neighbors of North Korea, are prepared to give up on diplomacy."

*From the New York Times Book Review last June: "None of these flavors of the Raines epoch make an appearance in "The One That Got Away."

Very well, bye-bye, raspberry pie, and let us move on to another moribund usage, i.e., the distinction between "who" and "whom."

The evidence here is not so conclusive, but one finds, e.g., a headline in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "Voters don't like being told whom their choices are." In Worth magazine, "Whom can you trust?" From Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia: "The film starred and was directed by Richard Burton, whom played the title character Faustus." Aaaargh!

A letter comes to hand from Sis H. Kinney in Charleston, S.C., inquiring into the fate of"either/or" and its partner "neither/nor." In evidence she offers a sentence from the News & Courier: "He stresses that these are neither never-before-told stories or the product of wholly original research." She asks, Doesn't "neither" always demand a "nor"? The answer, surprisingly, is "maybe not."

Webster's Dictionary of English Usage cites to such respected authors as Lord Byron and Daniel Defoe in the 18th and 19th centuries and Mark Van Doren and Joyce Cary in the 20th. All of them fearlessly linked "neither" not to "nor" but to "or." This is unsettling, but we all should be unsettled now and then. My own advice is to stick with "neither/nor," but the Charleston reporter has precedent on his side.

We soldier on. The rule is that singular subjects take singular referents, but the rule is universally abused. From a letter to the editor of the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat: "That defense is available to anyone seeking to make their case in Florida's marketplace of ideas." And from an item in the New York Times last September about copyright infringement: "Neither Mr. Frey nor Random House are admitting any wrongdoing . . ." And from an editorial in the Times two weeks later about global terrorism: "Neither the report nor the president provide even a glimmer of suggestion . . ."

While I'm belaboring the good, gray New York Times, let me cite the veteran critic A.O. Scott, in a review of "The Devil Wears Prada" last June: "She also explains that while her kingdom of couture may seem like a shallow and trivial place . . ." What's that "like" doing in there? It adds nothing but clutter to "seem."

The moral to all this is that changes in English usage, like changes in hemlines, demand a time of testing before they're accepted. When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.

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