Note on grammar and The Undoing

In last night’s The Undoing, the character of Hugh Grant’s persnickety mother corrected Nicole Kidman for saying something like “none of them are going.”

She said “None IS going, dear. None is a contraction of no one, and therefore must be singular.”

None of that is right.

You can tell from the sentence I just wrote above that “none” is not merely an abbreviation of “no one” or “not one.” You can’t substitute either of those into my sentence without creating gibberish.  In that sentence it replaces or contracts “not any.” Even though “None of that is right” is correctly written in the singular, it is not because “none” means “no one” or “not one.” “None” is a completely separate word which can also replace “not any,” and the expression “not any” can be singular or plural depending on context (see rule three below).

Here is the rule for indefinite pronouns in American English, in three parts:

1. Always singular: each, either, neither, one, someone, somebody, anyone, anybody.

2. Always plural: several, few, both, many.

3. Either singular of plural depending on the prepositional phrase that follows or is implied: some, any, none, all and almost all.

Rule three examples:

With prepositional phrase stated:

“None of the milk is missing”; but “None of the elephants are missing.”

“All of the milk is missing”; but “All of the elephants are missing.”

With prepositional phrase implied:

“Were any batters truly successful against Koufax?”

“No, none were.”

“Are any elephants missing?”

“No, none are.”

Note that if you answer the baseball question with “nobody,” which would not take a qualifying prepositional phrase, the verb must be singular, per rule 1. “Nobody” is always singular, with no exceptions.

“Were any batters truly successful against Koufax?”

“Hell no! Nobody was.”

To get back to the original point, Ms. Kidman’s character was correct to say “None of them are going.” It is possible that the character of Hugh Grant’s mother was supposed to be English, and therefore unfamiliar with the conventions of American grammar, but in that case she had no business correcting an American. (I guess Kidman’s character is supposed to be an American. She dropped her Aussie accent, except for the word “your,” which she can’t master with an American accent.)

29 thoughts on “Note on grammar and The Undoing

  1. Given the eccentricities of the English language, I would not be surprised if there was an exception to the general rule the UncleScoopy lays out that applies ONLY to elephants and Sandy Koufax.

    1. In response to your earlier, some prisspot grammarian is shaking her head somewhere at the “grammatical crimes of Samuel Langhorne Clemens”. (That’s a JFCooper joke).

      1. What a wonderful world it will be when the prisspot grammarians have recovered from their Trump-induced comas. We never properly appreciated them until him, and perhaps they have learned some sympathy for people who at least make an effort to speak intelligibly.

      1. I think there is a Gibson who wrote a book called “Neuromancer”, and of course there is, or was, Henry Gibson – who can forget his PSA’s for the United Appeal for the Dead? And there was Debbie Gibson, of everlasting renown. But I suppose all of those are wrong, and you mean some sportsball figure of whom (of who?) I have not heard. My ignorance grows oppressive.

        1. Henry Gibson was in a cool little baseball movie called Long Gone (not on DVD or YouTube). Played the father half of the father and son owners of a minor league team called the Tampico Stogies. Teller – a speaking Teller- played the son. When things were looking bad for the future of the Stogies, Teller had a great line: “Daddy, does this mean we don’t get to be baseball moguls no more?”.
          Now Debbie had the most surprisingly nice bod of any celebrity who ever did the HefMag in my humble.

          1. Actually to Tanner
            Learn something every day. Objective I’ve heard. Oblique as its aka I’d never heard. When I hear oblique, I think indirect as in approach (Liddell Hart and his unfortunately German following, refusing the flank (my HS girlfriend was notorious for that), Frederick the Great, Epaminondas, etc. Or, as a normal person would think, in dative.
            Accusative and dative just work better for me, objectively speaking.

          1. Thank you, Adam. I forget where you are, but I know you have mentioned it, so that’s on me.

  2. The question is would it be correct to refer to Scoopy as a grammar nazi? Or in the post, would it be more proper to refer to Hugh Grant’s mother as the grammar nazi and Scoop as an an anti-grammer nazi?

    But all kidding aside, that was the most interesting post about grammar I’ve read all day. Of course, it isn’t quite 9 am yet…

    1. I generally don’t correct someone’s grammar because I don’t care about grammar. I use “ain’t” and “gotta” and similar solecisms all the time, for emphasis or humor or in character voice or in a fixed expression. Those sorts of words make the language richer, as I see it.

      I do however, always point out when somebody pedantically corrects another person incorrectly with an ill-considered rule.

      The one that annoys me the most is “never use an apostrophe to form a plural.” When people spew out that one online, I always write back that they haven’t dotted all their is.

      (They usually don’t get it.)

      1. The one that gripes me is the constant misuse of “(insert name or pronoun here) and I” when me is the grammatically correct usage. Almost everybody on tv does this and I’m afraid it will evolve into accepted usage.

        1. Americans have problems using the dative case and nominative case. Just as often they use the dative case when they should be using the nominative case…ie using “John and me went to the mill” instead of “John and I went to the mill.”

          1. I want someone to explain what tanner is talking about. All I know about the Dative case comes from Mark Twain’s remarks about German: “…nobody ever knows when he is in the Dative case, except he discover it by accident–and then he does not know when or where it was that he got into it, or how long he has been in it, or how he is going to get out of it again. The Dative case is but an ornamental folly–it is better to discard it.”

          2. So many correct usages sound sonically atrocious. And spelling? But what do you expect with a language which developed as a cocktail of German, two dialects of French, Latin, Danish, Celt, and even a bit of Phlegm, I mean Flemish. Did I miss anything?
            And at no point did anyone ask “Cui bono?”.
            Well at least we don’t have umlauts or le circonflexe. French is damn near as inconsistent as English. And English, particularly newscaster English, seems to be developing its own “a” vs. “de” problem.
            Then there’s this thing called the subjunctive. Dying away but not gone. Greek needs two sets of that sucker.

          3. As someone who has struggled mightily with several languages, I have to weigh in that spoken English is one of the simpler languages in the world because of the fact that nouns have only two forms: singular and plural. Russian words have 12 forms (six cases, singular and plural), Czech 14, and some Austronesian languages have a singular and four different plurals, depending on the number represented.

            Yes, our subjunctive is tricky, and verb tense agreement is murderous, but basic communication is simple.

            But then we come to the written version of English, which is utter nonsense. Vowels represent a myriad of different sounds with no orthographic distinction. Some letter combinations like -ough can be pronounced just about any conceivable way, except one with a “g” sound. The letter “c” serves no good purpose except when followed by an “h” (and that sound should be represented by a separate letter since it has nothing to do with either c or h). And so forth. I have no idea how foreigners can ever learn how to write in English. God bless ’em when they succeed.

          4. “me” in English is the objective aka oblique) case. There are also the subjective, reflexive and possessive cases for English pronouns. Modern English combines the dative and accusative cases into the objective case. Old English had both the dative and accusative cases.

          5. Tanner, I appreciate your attempt to help me. I just wish it actually helped. Good effort, though!

      2. My 10th grade English teacher required us to read William Safire’s “On Language” column in the Sunday NY Times Magazine. I think that was partly because Safire was an alum of Bronx Science but also so we would understand how language evolves. “Ain’t” is the classic example of an improper word. But because it has been so widely used for so long most linguist would agree today that it is perfectly acceptable to use the word. As for grammar, I wasn’t one to memorize and apply grammatical rules. Instead I have relied more on my ear and whether a sentence sounds right to me. I never taught English. To the extent I taught writing in my social studies classes, I mostly ended up teaching remedial essay writing. The biggest problem there wasn’t bad grammar, it was blank essay answers. NY State requires students to pass Regents exams in various subjects in order to graduate. If a student was close to a passing grade, the teachers grading the exam would routinely go back through it looking to see if they could “find” any extra points. It was really frustrating when a student was one point from passing, but you couldn’t find that point because they had left the essay section blank.

        1. I taught high school in upstate New York when I was going to grad school, and I had an experience parallel to yours. I had to fail a guy in my sweat-hog class who got a 63 (passing 65) because he refused to go in front of the class and speak. The oral presentation for the non-regents diploma was worth ten points and, as I recall, it included some instructions that forbade me from scoring any presentation less than 5/10 as long as the student spoke for ___ time, which was something mimimal like a minute.

          So I told ol’ Vince Fazio about my instructions, and I assured him that he did not have to address the question posed by the test, whatever it was. All he needed was to go in front of the class for 60 seconds and give his name and maybe talk about a hobby or pet or relative, or just anything that popped into his mind. I could even award him 5/10 if he said “Hi, I’m Vince Fazio” slowly enough to drag it out for a minute, and I told him that in those words! He simply could not do it. I’m pretty sure I begged him to do it, and he still could not. Heartbreaking.

          1. I was the second grader on an U.S. History Regents exam. Phillip, a student who had left the essay questions blank, ended up with a 54. At that time, students could still graduate with a local diploma if they scored at least 55 on their regents exams. At the time, I didn’t know Philip personally. But his U.S. History teacher got very angry with me because I “refused” to find him the point. I handed her the exam and told her to find it and she just got angrier at me. That woman was a nut. The next year, I taught an afterschool U.S. History prep class. Phillip was one of my students in that class. I tried to stress how important it was to write something for the essays even if it was little more than restating the question as a topic sentence. I told them that if they came close to passing their teachers would go back through their exams looking for points but if they didn’t write anything we wouldn’t be able to find any. I then used Phillip’s exam as an example, but of course didn’t tell them I was talking about Phillip. After class, he came up to me and said “you know Mr. McChesney, the same thing happened with my test last year.” I told him I was talking about his exam, but didn’t want to embarrass him. I am proud to say when he took the exam again he passed with a 66.

            Phillip was a decent kid who wasn’t much of a student, though he was funny. The year he was in my prep class, he was also in my global studies class. At the time NYC Department of Education regulations forbade students from having a cell phone in the building. But the unofficial rule was having a cell phone was fine so long as we didn’t see it. One day, from the front of the room, I noticed a girl in that global studies class near the back, hunched over, clearly texting. I started walking towards the back and just as I came even with her she noticed me. All in one motion, she jumped up, shoved the phone in her bag and ran away from me towards the window, screaming “NO YOU GODDAMN DON’T!” I asked her to give me the phone. She said “what phone, I don’t have a phone.” I told her I saw her texting. She replied “I wasn’t texting, you didn’t see me texting, I could have been playing with myself, YEAH I WAS PLAYING WITH MYSELF!” While she was right there wasn’t actually a specific rule against in class masturbation, that didn’t stop me from writing a dean’s referral. But back to Phillip. About 2 weeks later I was giving a test. As I walked the room I saw that Phillip had his phone in his lap reading something off of it. Without saying anything, I walked over and took his test off his desk. Phillip without missing a beat said, “I wasn’t using my phone, I was playing with myself.” The whole class, myself included, started laughing pretty hard at the callback. I didn’t give him his test back though.

    1. Worse. An English educator.

      Bad experience.

      I specialized in British and Irish Drama, with a lesser concentration in Stylistics.

      I was hired to teach American Literature, about which I knew jack shit, except for the stuff I read in high school and mostly disliked. I find Hawthorne, Cooper, Wharton and Melville pretty much unreadable. Hated every minute of it, except when I talked about Walt Whitman and a few members of the Lost Generation. I tried to sneak Kurt Vonnegut into the novel course and caught hell from my chairman. And I barely managed to stay ahead of my students.

      Plus the pay sucked.

      I thought maybe I’d like to eat in a restaurant some day, so I abandoned everything I had ever studied for, moved to Miami just because it was warm, and went to work for 7-Eleven. It was a reckless and ill-considered move. Amazingly, through an astounding and completely unexpected twist of fortune, it worked out very well.

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