No one, no-one, nobody, no noone

The indefinite pronouns no one and nobody are largely interchangeable. Garner (1998) notes that no one is more formal and literary, a judgement supported by this corpus analysis. Both terms, however, are apt to appear without controversy in almost any kind of writing.

No one, meaning no person, is spelt with two words. The hyphenated no-one is a common variant, especially in informal contexts, though it is less to my taste than the traditional two-worded form. The diaeretic noöne is unlikely to enter common usage. The practice of writing no one as noone may have resulted from its virtual synonymity with the one-worded nobody; from its connection to the similarly unified everyone, anyone and someone; or from the tendency for the morphology of many compound words to go from A B to A-B to AB.

Noone is a decidedly strange spelling of no one. To my eyes, today, it is wrong, but no one can say for sure what usage will be accepted in 50 years’ time. Noone implies the monosyllabic pronunciation /nuːn/, especially to non-native speakers of English. (Mind you, I have yet to hear anyone mispronounce cooperate.) Searches for ‘noone’ on turned up a small number of results, all of them the archaic spelling of noon.

Nobody Knows 1Moreover, noone immediately suggests some specific person called Noone, e.g. the actor Nora-Jane Noone or the musician Peter Noone. Thus it may lead to momentary ambiguity or to additional meanings that are both unintended and comic:

Noone loves me, but I have my eye on Sullivan.
Noone saw Noone leave the room.
Noone was behind the tree, so I discreetly relieved myself before rejoining the others.

You see the problem.

Now, a few notes on usage.

Indefinite pronouns (no one, everyone, anybody, etc.) usually take singular verbs but can be referred to by singular or plural pronouns (they, them, their). If you follow an indefinite pronoun with a plural pronoun, you scupper notional agreement (aka ‘concord’), but you avoid awkward constructions such as s/he and his or her, as well as the accusations of sexism habitually slung at the notoriously gender-specific he, his and him.

Sometimes the singular form will be called for, and it is preferred by some writers, but there is nothing grammatically wrong with the plural.

‘Nobody remembers a journalist for their writing’ – Richard F Shepard
‘[N]o one can ever be in love more than once in their life’ – Jane Austen, in Sense and Sensibility
‘Nobody here seems to look into an Author, ancient or modern, if they can avoid it’ – Lord Byron, in a letter

This last quote is cited in The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, which adds that Byron’s ‘Nobody here’ could only have meant males. Yet he opted for genderless they, and it seems altogether natural and sensible. Elsewhere, MWDEU states that ‘the plural they, their, them with an indefinite pronoun as referent is in common standard use’. Writing about any, anyone and anybody, Robert Burchfield points out that ‘popular usage and historical precedent favour the use of a plural pronoun’. In adopting the singular use of ‘plural’ they, Byron is in good company.

So, would you write ‘No one in their right mind’, ‘No one in his right mind’, ‘No one in her right mind’, ‘No one in his or her right mind’, ‘No one in zer right mind’, or what? My advice is to approach these options with an open mind; to be aware of, but not cowed by, those who decry singular-they constructions; and to let context, meaning and good sense guide your decision.

[image source]

24 Responses to No one, no-one, nobody, no noone

  1. It’s hyphenated every time for me. With a hyphen, I treat “no-one” as a single word akin to “someone”, “everyone”, etc, while avoiding the ugly and misleading noone. (Could the easy acceptance of “cooperate” be related to the fact that the second ‘o” belongs to the stressed syllable?)

    I think that, for me, “nobody” belongs exclusively to the written register; I don’t think I use it in speech. Not much, anyway. I have a faint impression that “nobody” in speech is characteristically British, but that may be wrong.

    As for the singular “they” — in a context (such as “no-one in their right mind“) where it is almost universally accepted and preferred, is it even worth talking about for any purpose other than mythbusting? Even official government documents routinely use singular “they”, at least here in Australia.

    There are contexts in which singular “they” doesn’t quite work in present-day English. One context in which I’ve reluctantly resorted to an inclusive “he” was not exactly, but somewhat like, the script for a play in which the gender of some characters are not specified. To be more precise, it was some instructions for performing a magic trick (two “characters”: the magician and the spectator) and it required the occasional inclusive “he” in contexts such as: “As the magician says this, he picks up the piles of four cards and places them on top of the corresponding piles of five cards“. There isn’t a neat alternative in such cases.

  2. Stan Carey says:

    Thank you for your interesting contribution, Dragon. The acceptability of cooperate is probably related to the familiarity of its pronunciation, but this is also what gives me pause about it. Its syllabic divisions are likely to be less obvious to someone learning English: they might reasonably assume that the word is spoken like recuperate. But including the hyphen can lead to awkward formations like unco-operative, which falsely suggests that unco- was affixed to operative.

    It would be interesting to see a geographical analysis of the comparative usage of nobody and no one. Or indeed a personal analysis: you yourself seem unsure about whether you say the word nobody. It can be difficult to gauge how frequently we use them relative to each other. Though they are virtually synonymous, each has its unique nuances. To take examples from pop culture, Nobody was undoubtedly the right choice for Gary Farmer’s role in the film Dead Man, and no one would spoil the rhythm of Paul Brady’s song.

    Singular they is worth talking about for many reasons, myth-busting among them. From what I can see there remains a lot of uncertainty and misinformation about it, some of it dogmatically disseminated. Myth-busting can be a useful pre-emptive act as well as a corrective one. The example in your instructions is, umm, instructive. I agree that they is unsuitable in this case. Whether one opts for he or a combination such as s/he or he or she is a matter of taste, context, and so on. S/he is effectively unpronounceable, while he or she is cumbersome. The generic masculine pronoun has great versatility, but resistance to it on the grounds of sexual politics is entirely valid.

    I was reminded of all this recently when I read the following line, in Ursula Le Guin’s essay ‘Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown’: “[A]lmost every reviewer, however carried away he gets in supporting or attacking or explaining the book’s themes and ideas…”

  3. On my hypothesis that the acceptability of cooperate is related to its stress pattern – or more generally, that English speakers typically recoil from representations in which a repeated vowel letter (e.g. “oo” or “ee”) represents two different sounds on opposite sides of a syllable boundary only if the stress does not fall on the latter syllable – if I’m right, then we ought to find “preemptive” but “re-enabled”, and likewise for any similar examples. And indeed, I think this pattern agrees with my own preferences.

    Another problem with “s/he” is that it draws attention to the fact that one is being gender-neutral, whereas this fact should remain unobtrusively in the background of one’s writing.

  4. Stan says:

    When I wrote pre-emptive in my previous comment, and as I write it now, both pre and emptive are underlined with the Red Dots of Intolerance. I prefer the hyphenated form, and it is this form that is listed in the OED, but I have no problem with preemptive, and I have probably used it on occasion. On the one hand, excessive hyphenation can be unsightly; on the other hand it can usefully remind us of a word’s sub(-)structure. Korzybski subscribed enthusiastically to the latter reasoning.

    Continuing my attempt to be even-handed to a fault, many texts – probably most – would certainly be well served by discreet gender neutrality, but some texts would benefit from its conspicuousness.

  5. Lauren says:

    Well said about “they” vs. a singular pronound with nobody, somebody, etc.

  6. Stan says:

    Thanks, Lauren. Singular they is not a panacea, but it’s a good solution in many cases.

  7. […] is it noone or no one? [Probably no one; Noone is a […]

  8. Jonah says:

    does NO one is just for a person ? my professor say these :

    COMPUTER is no one.
    And NO ONE is perfect.
    Therefore, COMPUTERS are PERFECT.

    thanks for answering !

  9. Stan says:

    Jonah: When no one is used as a pronoun, it can only refer to a person. It means “not any person”. Your professor’s lines use formal logic for comedic effect.

  10. Teia says:

    I don`t know what is the right answer to the following sentence:
    Nobody enjoys,,,,as we do. [ himself, oneself, themselves ]. Which word in brackets is correct, please?
    Thank you so much in advance !

  11. Stan says:

    Hi Teia. Themselves is the best choice there.

    • Teia says:

      Hi, Stan !
      Thank you so much for your quick reply ! I really needed it !
      I was about to choose themselves but I was not sure although I know that, when we use the indefinite pronoun “nobody” in a question tag sentence, we should use “they” as in the following example:
      Nobody knows that, do they ?
      I searched the net but I haven`t got an answer to this problem.
      Thank you again !

  12. prabhat says:

    Which is the better way to write-‘noone’ or ‘no-one’?

  13. prabhat says:

    Whether noone is singular or plural?

  14. Stan says:

    prabhat: My post answers these questions, if you read it.

  15. Alien Out There says:

    Hmm… interesting. I’ve seen ‘noone’ used in place of ‘no one’ in old poetry. I just assumed it was a tricky, “poetic licence” way of fitting ‘no one’ into one syllable. I was going to use it myself, googled just to check established usage and landed here, amongst other places.

  16. Berni says:

    Excellent post. Thanks for such a enlightening article!
    However the first example actually confused me a bit.
    “Nobody remembers a journalist for their writing” – Richard F Shepard
    In this text I would understand that “their” refers to “a journalist” (the object of the sentence) rather that to “Nobody” (the subject of the sentence). So, the rule of using “their” in reference to an indefinite pronoun does not seem to apply here, and if I saw this sentence without knowing who wrote it, I would tend to think I it is using the wrong form, as “journalist” is not indefinite, the author should have opted for “s/he”, “she or he” or neutral “he”. I need an extra explanation on this point. Thank you!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Berni. They is fine in the quoted line – it’s commonly used with singular antecedents both definite and indefinite. He would not be neutral in this context, since it implies or strongly suggests a male journalist.

  17. Berni says:

    In my previous comment I meant to say “the author should have opted for “her/his”, “her or his” or neutral “his”…

  18. I have been trying diligently to follow the teaching I received in elementary school 50 years ago and always would say “No one in his right mind” or occasionally “her right mind,” though it was to the point where I knew I must sound strange to almost everyone else who was (were?) being more intuitive. Now I see I could have avoided a lot of stress by reading this post five years ago and joining the more relaxed and sensible camp where the likes of Byron, Austen and you live. Thanks!

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re welcome, Gretchen! I’m glad it was helpful. Since this post I’ve written in more detail about the legitimacy of singular they, if you want further validation. And thank you for pointing out the dud links, which I’ve now fixed. I dread to think of all the link rot in my blog archives!

  19. Oh, and the two links I tried to click through are not working currently: “good company” and “nothing grammatically wrong.”

  20. Bibie says:

    Im not clear..i didnt mean no one i mean No Body and Nobody

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s