settle a debate regarding 'no one'

indefinite pronouns...

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settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#1  Postby Mick » May 01, 2011 11:02 pm

Consider this:

No one believes that chairs are immaterial. For if they did believe this, then they'd be insane.

I think that this sentence is grammatically correct and meaningful insofar as 'they' is singular and 'no one' refers to some set of believers. You could, I suppose, substitute 'they' with 'he' as well.

However, a fellow of mine with a phd in English disagrees. He thinks that the sentence is no good since ' no one' fails to refer but 'they' does refer.

Is this just a difference of interpretation regarding its reference or something different. Who is right if any one of us at all?
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#2  Postby Animavore » May 01, 2011 11:06 pm

But 'one' does refer, surely.

Like if I said, "One's tea is getting cold", I would be referring to me. I could even be referring to you(?).
So "no one" means not me, you, or anyone. I would think.
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#3  Postby Fallible » May 01, 2011 11:12 pm

It does not seem grammatically correct to me. 'They' refers to someone who has until that point made no appearance. It's easy to re-write it so it is, though - 'No one believes that chairs are immaterial. For if anyone did believe this, then they would be insane.' That still does not make a lot of sense, because it assumes that there are no insane people who believe strange things.
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#4  Postby don't get me started » May 09, 2011 4:28 am

This area causes some learners of English no end of problems, and has caused me no end of problems over the years, trying to explain it.
The basic problem comes from a lack of understanding of how English treats the concept of Zero,
which is not a unitary concept.
It is easy enough to understand the English concepts of singular and plural. 'There is a dog'. vs 'There are two/three/some dogs'.
But English also treats the concept of zero as either a singular or a plural.

If a classroom is devoid of human presence, one might say: "there aren't any students" or "there isn't a teacher'.
Because our normal concept is that students exist in classrooms in plurality, the opposite, 'zero' case is 'not any'. But because we normally think of a classroom with just one teacher, the opposite 'zero' case is 'not a'.

The key point is what kind of zero the speaker is talking about...zero in opposition to one, or zero in opposition to many.
Singular zero or plural zero.
In this way, it is kind of subjective, dependent upon what the speaker thinks is the opposite/normal case.

There aren't any pubs in this town. (Normally a town this size would have several pubs, but in this case the number of pubs is zero)
There isn't a pub in this village. (Even a village this small could be expected to have at least one pub, but actually, the number is zero)

So in your example, it would seem natural to assume that the speaker's zero (no-one) stands in opposition to 'many' or ' a number of', and so retain the plural forms.
If one wanted to assert zero as an opposite to singular, stressing the non-plurality of the zero concept, you would have to phrase it something like this:
"Not (even) one person believes that chairs are immaterial, for if he did, he would be insane".

Of course, this is only half the story. Uncountable nouns are different again.

(Try teaching this to Japanese who don't even have singular or plural in their language.)
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#5  Postby mmmcheezy » May 09, 2011 4:31 am

as a grammar nerd, i'll be watching the responses here. i personally am unsure about the answer, but i have enjoyed reading others' so far.
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#6  Postby byofrcs » May 09, 2011 5:43 am

"No one" refers to an empty set of people who "believes that chairs are immaterial"

"For if" would refer to the condition that the set of people (i.e. "they") who did "believes that chairs are immaterial" was not empty (i.e. "they did believe this") and "then" "they'd be insane."

A computer parser could work it out.
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#7  Postby SkyMutt » May 09, 2011 5:44 am

Fallible wrote:It does not seem grammatically correct to me. 'They' refers to someone who has until that point made no appearance. It's easy to re-write it so it is, though - 'No one believes that chairs are immaterial. For if anyone did believe this, then they would be insane.' That still does not make a lot of sense, because it assumes that there are no insane people who believe strange things.

Wouldn't the second sentence be described as an elliptical sentence, and as such, be grammatically correct? As for the issue of referring, I would think that "no one" refers negatively, while "they" refers positively, but I don't see a problem with that. Then again, I don't have a PhD in English. This isn't to say that the holder of such an academic title is incapable of error. ;)

An elliptical sentence does not mean a sentence with an ellipsis in it. An ellipsis is three periods, symbolizing missing information. This form most often appears when using only part of a direct quote.

An elliptical sentence refers to sentences with information missing. This form does not require an ellipsis. These sentences are grammatically correct only if the necessary information to understand the sentence has been supplied previously or is clear from the context of the sentence.
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#8  Postby katja z » May 09, 2011 6:38 am

Fallible wrote:It does not seem grammatically correct to me. 'They' refers to someone who has until that point made no appearance. It's easy to re-write it so it is, though - 'No one believes that chairs are immaterial. For if anyone did believe this, then they would be insane.' That still does not make a lot of sense, because it assumes that there are no insane people who believe strange things.


Agreed, the shift in reference is a bit awkward, although it has to be admitted that the sentences as they are can still be understood (decoded) as they were intended (indeed, it took me a few moments to realise where the problem was!). So I'd say they are fine on a pragmatic level - they can be used to communicate the intended idea successfully; the listener/reader will mentally supply the (grammatically) missing link between "no one" and "they". But I would certainly recommend rewriting if this was intended for formal communication (essay, article, formal letter etc.).

@ don't get me started: interesting, I don't think I've thought about the concept of zero this way before. It's probably one of those things you only become aware of when you see someone struggling with them and try to understand why this could be a problem ... and voilà a new insight into your own language! Contrastive analysis is so instructive. And fun :grin:
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#9  Postby nunnington » May 09, 2011 7:00 am

I agree with katja z, it sounds slightly awkward, but it's acceptable. In speech, it would probably go unnoticed, but in more formal writing, you might find yourself rewriting it slightly.

You can't be too logical or purist, in relation to syntax and semantics in English, as many constructions just work pragmatically. Consider these sentences:

No-one wants to see their team humiliated in this way.
No-one likes having their ice-cream stolen.

'Their' has to function as the possessive pronoun, since we don't allow 'no-one's'. Hence, *No-one wants to see no-one's team humiliated, where * denotes ungrammatical.

You find the same issue with 'everyone' and 'someone':

Everyone wants their own team to be champions. cf. Everyone wants everyone's team to be champions, has a different meaning.
Someone called to complain about their car service. cf. Someone called to complain about someone's car service.
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#10  Postby katja z » May 09, 2011 7:10 am

nunnington wrote:
You can't be too logical or purist, in relation to syntax and semantics in English in any language, as many constructions just work pragmatically.


FIFY :grin:
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#11  Postby nunnington » May 09, 2011 7:21 am

katza z

You are probably right, in relation to other languages, but I don't like generalizing beyond the scope of what I know. I know that English contains what are called syntactic 'blends', that is, two or more constructions forming a kind of hybrid (I actually have a Ph. D. in linguistics), but I don't know if other languages do, so I err on the side of caution. Example: I am friends with him, presumably derived from 'we are friends', and 'I am friendly with him'. Oh shit, I've just remembered why I gave this up. Boring.
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#12  Postby Fallible » May 09, 2011 9:11 am

SkyMutt wrote:
Fallible wrote:It does not seem grammatically correct to me. 'They' refers to someone who has until that point made no appearance. It's easy to re-write it so it is, though - 'No one believes that chairs are immaterial. For if anyone did believe this, then they would be insane.' That still does not make a lot of sense, because it assumes that there are no insane people who believe strange things.

Wouldn't the second sentence be described as an elliptical sentence, and as such, be grammatically correct? As for the issue of referring, I would think that "no one" refers negatively, while "they" refers positively, but I don't see a problem with that. Then again, I don't have a PhD in English. This isn't to say that the holder of such an academic title is incapable of error. ;)

An elliptical sentence does not mean a sentence with an ellipsis in it. An ellipsis is three periods, symbolizing missing information. This form most often appears when using only part of a direct quote.

An elliptical sentence refers to sentences with information missing. This form does not require an ellipsis. These sentences are grammatically correct only if the necessary information to understand the sentence has been supplied previously or is clear from the context of the sentence.


Interesting...but I'm not sure this sentence is an example of an elliptical sentence. It is not so much a case of there being information missing as it is a case of the information telling us that no specific person or group of people is being discussed ('no one').

The elliptical version of this sentence would be 'no one believes that chairs are immaterial. For if they did [believe this], they would be insane.' The 'believe this' is the information which would be omitted in an elliptical sentence, because one can derive from the first half that the belief is what is being referred to with 'if they did'.
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#13  Postby Fallible » May 09, 2011 9:28 am

katja z wrote:
Fallible wrote:It does not seem grammatically correct to me. 'They' refers to someone who has until that point made no appearance. It's easy to re-write it so it is, though - 'No one believes that chairs are immaterial. For if anyone did believe this, then they would be insane.' That still does not make a lot of sense, because it assumes that there are no insane people who believe strange things.


Agreed, the shift in reference is a bit awkward, although it has to be admitted that the sentences as they are can still be understood (decoded) as they were intended (indeed, it took me a few moments to realise where the problem was!). So I'd say they are fine on a pragmatic level - they can be used to communicate the intended idea successfully; the listener/reader will mentally supply the (grammatically) missing link between "no one" and "they". But I would certainly recommend rewriting if this was intended for formal communication (essay, article, formal letter etc.).


Oh yes, I completely agree. The sentence in its original form is perfectly understandable. I doubt many, if any, would have even noticed anything at all, had it not been subjected to close examination in a discussion on grammar. However I do think that putting on my anally retentive erm...ah...hat for a minute or two, it is not strictly speaking grammatically correct...or at the least, it is grammatically rather clumsy. But then when speaking colloquially, a large portion of established grammar routinely goes out the window. :cheers:
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#14  Postby Blip » May 09, 2011 10:58 am

I agree that in terms of spoken English, the original 'No one believes that chairs are immaterial. For if they did believe this, then they'd be insane.' would be perfectly acceptable and clear.

If I were writing the sentence, though, 'no-one' is undoubtedly singular so I'd go for 'No one believes that chairs are immaterial. Anyone who did believe this would be insane.'

It reminds me of one of our pet bugbears at work: an organisation is a single entity but so many people overlook this, producing sentences like 'Retailer X got their new summer stock in yesterday'.
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#15  Postby hackenslash » May 09, 2011 11:17 am

It's perfectly fine, as employing 'they' as a gender-neutral singular is valid usage. 'No-one' does refer, just not to anybody in particular. It doesn't refer to a set, but to an indeterminate single individual.

Similarly, 'their' is valid in the same sense as a gender-neutral singular possessive pronoun.

Edit: Incidentally, the hyphenated 'no-one' is non-standard, but I use it for elegance, which is always the primary rule, in my opinion. It's also why I use the Americese spelling of 'skeptic'.
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#16  Postby Fallible » May 09, 2011 11:29 am

'No-one' is not an individual, indeterminate or not. 'No-one' is no one. Nobody. No person. No individual.
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#17  Postby Rilx » May 09, 2011 11:54 am

'No one' refers to all members of a set of several persons, none of them having the said belief.
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#18  Postby chairman bill » May 09, 2011 12:12 pm

"No one believes that chairs are immaterial. For if they did believe this, then they'd be insane."

Clearly a nonsense passage; sod the grammar. It's also lacking in conciseness. Surely a simple, "Only the insane would believe chairs to be immaterial", would do. What is more, the meaning would be clear & it would make logical, aswell as grammatical sense.
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#19  Postby Fallible » May 09, 2011 12:13 pm

:thumbup:
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Re: settle a debate regarding 'no one'

#20  Postby hackenslash » May 09, 2011 12:21 pm

Fallible wrote:'No-one' is not an individual, indeterminate or not. 'No-one' is no one. Nobody. No person. No individual.


Yes, it was a little woolly, wasn't it? :oops:

chairman bill wrote:"No one believes that chairs are immaterial. For if they did believe this, then they'd be insane."

Clearly a nonsense passage; sod the grammar. It's also lacking in conciseness. Surely a simple, "Only the insane would believe chairs to be immaterial", would do. What is more, the meaning would be clear & it would make logical, aswell as grammatical sense.


:thumbup:
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