That's a famous quote from Franz Kafka.

if none observe me, I have to observe myself all the closer.

  • Remember that Kafka wrote in German, and this is probably a translation, showing the difficulty of translating the German keiner in certain situations. It's not something you'd be likely to see written by a native English speaker. – The Photon Oct 11 '15 at 14:32
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    Yes. If none observe me is a poetic/old-fashioned way of talking. A modern day equivalent would probably be if no one observes me, which would take the singular verb. – Graham Nicol Oct 11 '15 at 14:44
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    And the advantage in using none is that the word observe is used in both halves of the sentence, creating a nice symmetry. It may have been a stylistic choice as much as anything. – Graham Nicol Oct 11 '15 at 14:50
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    The translation may reflects the "subjunctive inversion" in the original German: "Unentrinnbare Verpflichtung zur Selbstbeobachtung: Werde ich von jemandem andern beobachtet, muß ich mich natürlich auch beobachten, werde ich von niemandem sonst beobachtet, muß ich mich um so genauer beobachten." —Tagebücher 1910-1923, 1921, 7. November – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 11 '15 at 15:02
  • StoneyB, I'm not familiar with German, but are you saying that "If none observe me" is closer to the original German than "If no one observes me"? Just asking out of interest. – Graham Nicol Oct 11 '15 at 17:58

None can be singular or plural, depending on what it is referring to.

Here it is referring to "the people". A fuller reading of the quote might be:

if none of the people observe me, I have to observe myself all the closer.

The people is plural, and so takes the plural verb observe.

It should be pointed out that it's not so much about a hard-and-fast rule but about clarity. If you’re wanting to emphasise “not any amongst many” as in the above example then you should use the plural to make this emphasis clear. There’s a good discussion of notional agreement here http://dictionary.reference.com/help/faq/language/g11.html

ODO's usage section isn't quite as explicit, but does mention it depends on the emphasis needed http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/none

  • This is an interesting question. If I say "None of the pencils is red," "pencils" is plural but "none" is singular. Why? – sumelic Oct 11 '15 at 18:26
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    pencils is plural, so you should use the plural are. You should say, "None of the pencils are red". – Graham Nicol Oct 11 '15 at 19:14
  • @GrahamNicol Any reference for that? – JiK Oct 11 '15 at 19:22
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    In other words, you can say "None of the pencils is red." to emphasize the singularity of each individual pencil, or "None of the pencils are red." to emphasize the entire set. – Joe Oct 12 '15 at 5:22
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    @GrahamNicol pencils is plural, so you should use the plural are. You should say, "None of the pencils are red".. No, this is completely untrue! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 19 '15 at 10:55

Even though some disagree, none can have a plural meaning. For instance:

(…) while the police found 170,425 images, none were classed as indecent. (The Telegraph.)

So we could interpret none in if none observe me as plural. However there is nothing in the fuller quotation to force on us that reading of none:

This inescapable duty to observe oneself: if someone else is observing me, naturally I have to observe myself too; if none observe me, I have to observe myself all the closer. (Franz Kafka, November 7, 1921.)

Now, in my admittedly limited research, all plural ‘nones’ I have found referred to a plural noun in the preceding clause, as the 170,425 images in the example above, or were part of expressions such as none of them. This is not the case in the Kafka quotation.

So, we should consider another possibilty. If none observe me may be an old-fashioned use of the present subjunctive in conditional sentences (see also here), as in:

If he be found guilty he shall be hung.

With observe, whether none be singular or plural, the same structure is:

If none observe me I have to observe myself all the closer.


The subject is None which can be both singular and plural. It's a misconception that it is always singular.

if none observe me, I have to observe myself all the closer.

Here, none is plural, so it took a plural form of verb Observe.

In the next part of the quote, to observe is infinitive. When you use an infinitive verb, the “to” is a part of the verb, and the verb is always just the verb. It’s not conjugated in anyway – no -ed, no -ing, no -s on the end.

  • @Micah oh! thanks for telling. I am still a learner. – Usernew Oct 12 '15 at 6:07
  • @Micah corrected it. – Usernew Oct 18 '15 at 8:20

Multiple answers have pointed to "none" as being optionally singular or plural. While we can't really say for sure why the author (or rather, translator from Kafka's German to English) chose this phrasing, I have a different theory.

It is the subjunctive mood.

The subjunctive mood is used (among other things) to express hypothetical scenarios, such as ones following an "if". In English, in the present tense, the subjunctive has the same form as the infinitive (without "to").

If he be willing...

If the dog steal my bacon...

If none observe me...

In modern usage, the subjunctive is very rare, especially the present subjunctive. (The past subjunctive, using "were", is slightly more common.)

Further reading: Wikipedia, "English subjunctive"

Incidentally, I don't agree with those other answers that say "none" can be singular or plural. I would always take "none" to be plural. But that might be dialect-specific, and someone who has a good book on grammar handy can speak more authoritatively than I can.

  • Do you mean "I would always take 'none' to be singular"? That's what I was expecting from from what you had written before. – Jacinto Nov 4 '15 at 8:20
  • @Jacinto: Nope. I would say "none are suitable", not "none is suitable". – Tim Pederick Nov 11 '15 at 13:48
  • I thought you meant otherwise, because if none is plurar is there a reason to think none observe is subjunctive, given the rare use of the subjunctive? – Jacinto Nov 11 '15 at 13:55
  • @Jacinto: It fits the context. Most verbs look identical in the present plural and in the subjunctive, but that doesn't mean we always have to interpret a sentence as using the present plural (if valid) rather than the subjunctive. And in this case, identifying it as the subjunctive avoids the singular/plural status of "none" entirely. Still, you could argue that present plural is a simpler explanation, and therefore better (applying Occam's Razor)... – Tim Pederick Nov 11 '15 at 14:00
  • Quite so. Not that this will shed much light on the present question, but if you like statistics you may look at to be, where subjunctive and indicative are different – Jacinto Nov 11 '15 at 14:16

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