The singulars are plural, isn't they?

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In an article I just posted, I wrote this:

(And you can only make these upgrades when you order the product; none of these features is upgradable after the fact, either by you or your local Apple Genius.)

I got a note on Twitter from a follower:

@jsnell “none of these features is upgradable after the fact” - I think you want ARE instead of is. #corrections

On first blush it does seem wrong, because the singular form “is” follows immediately after a plural, “features.” However, such constructions are surprisingly common in this zany language I use to ply my trade.

The solution to many vexing grammatical problems is to simplify the sentence, sort of like reducing an algebraic equation before solving for x. So that phrase becomes “Not one is upgradable.” (Oh, and by the way, both “upgradable” and “upgradeable” are valid.) Well, that scans. One (singular) is.

Except, wait, do I really mean none as a singular? When I’m really talking about the cluster of options for the MacBook Air, each one of which is individually upgradeable?

So I did what I always do when I’m confused. I throw myself on the mercy of the copy edit department. My charming and kind assistant managing editor, Sally Zahner, consulted with PC World’s Steven Gray and then replied:

In most cases you can justify using either “None is” or “None are,” but the trend is toward making the verb plural. When deciding whether to make the verb singular or plural, you need to decide what the speaker’s intent is—that is, whether the subject is plural or singular in the speaker’s mind. And in most cases it’s plural. So in your example below, you’re really saying: “All of the features are incapable of being upgraded”—or some such. You could also say, “Not one of the features is upgradable.” But the fact that you’re referring to all the features as a group suggests that you are really thinking of them as plural.

But of course this is pretty subjective, which is why I can never remember this fuzzy reasoning. But I agree that the trend is toward using the plural (which is why you second-guessed yourself, I suspect), and that’s what we tend to do on the copydesk. But it wouldn’t be strictly wrong to say, “None of the features is upgradable.” In fact, you’d make the stuffy, old-school grammar police happy.

Some days it’s fun working with words.

(By the way, I’m not changing it. But it’ll probably be rephrased in the print edition.)

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This page contains a single entry by Jason Snell published on October 20, 2010 4:06 PM.

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