22 Jun 2009

None of these sources are [sic] trustworthy

Submitted by Karl Hagen
The Grammarphobia question for June 22 addresses our old friend "none is" vs. "none are."

Q: As an SAT writing instructor, I am intrigued by your Grammar Myths page, which debunks the rule that "none" is always singular. Since the College Board follows this rule, we have thousands of students learning to write sentences like “None of the chickens is hatched.” What do you think about that?

The remainder of the post gives a good run-down of the status of subject-verb agreement with none. But what I want to focus on is the assertion that the College Board follows this none-is-singular rule, because I do not believe it is true, or at least not true in the sense that this SAT instructor thinks.

I have looked at a lot of real SATs, and I have never observed a writing question that presumes none must be singular. It may be the case that singular none appears incidentally in a sentence or two, but I would be willing to make a small wager that there has never been a question on an operational section that presents students with a plural none as an error. If you can send me an authentic counter-example from a released SAT (mock tests by Kaplan, etc. don't count), I will buy you a beer or other favorite beverage of approximately the same value.

In terms of testing, there is an important distinction to be made between passive observance of a rule and active testing of it. This is particularly important when we're dealing with rules of Standard English grammar, since there is no single standard, and different usage books give contradictory advice on many points, including none.

Imagine you're someone writing a question to be used on the SAT. You know that a lot of students are taught that none should always take singular subject-verb agreement. But you also know that many usage handbooks say that this rule is bunk. So what would happen if, for the sake of argument, you wrote a question like this:

None of the students whom Mrs. Stephens surveyed were able to identify the actual error, and so she gave a short grammar lesson as a refresher . No error

This question reflects what I'm calling active testing of a rule, but I'm virtually certain that, barring an incredible oversight on the part of the test makers, you will never see such a question on a real SAT because it would be patently ambiguous. Depending on what usage book you decide to follow, you can get two different answers: either "were" is wrong, or there is no error. Any sufficiently savvy student who ran across such a question could successfully challenge it and have the question removed. And when the College Board is forced to drop a question after scores have been released, it makes for really bad publicity. (You may remember the brouhaha over a PSAT question a few years ago.)

Where you might see none crop up on a test question is in the incidental (non-underlined) parts of the sentence:

None of the students which Mrs. Stephens surveyed was able to identify the actual error, and so she gave a short grammar lesson as a refresher . No error

In this case, I've created an unambiguous error (the which), and the singular-none rule is observed, but as it's not underlined, it's not directly tested.

Notice that mere observance of the rule does not imply that the College Board believes this is a rule students actually need to know. It's more likely that the question writer is following the rule just to avoid confrontation with the carping pedants who believe it always must be followed, or, put more generously, that the question writer doesn't want to distract students who might have been taught that none must be singular with irrelevant considerations. (Students who haven't been taught the rule wouldn't notice one way or another.)

So it may be the case, as the SAT instructor asserts, that the College Board always follows the singular-none rule. I haven't checked to see if there are any plural none's in parts of the questions that are not underlined (i.e., the parts that the test makers guarantee contain no errors). But this is simply a matter of defensive question writing, wording designed to avoid complaints from the ill-informed. It is certainly not the case that the rule is tested directly.

So teaching students to write sentences with singular none is a colossal waste of time and energy. They do not need to know the rule to solve real SAT questions correctly. And creating mock questions that presuppose plural none is an error is equally pointless.

In looking at published SAT material from different private companies, I have often noted such instances, where the authors implicitly push the notion that the College Board revels in trapping students with obscure grammar rules and spend a lot of time with drills and practice questions on topics that I have never seen appear on the SAT even once. The cynic in me wants to say that the writers of these books adopt this strategy deliberately in order to make their work appear more necessary. But I think it more likely that the authors simply don't know any better, that they are leaping to unfounded conclusions based either on an ignorance of how standardized test questions work or because they are simply copying misleading information found in other (non-College Board) sources that reflect the same confusion.