Nothing but the Truth: Using “but” as a Preposition

A learner recently asked me to confirm that we use the base form of the verb after “nothing but” and only infinitives after a phrase like “no choice but.” Hmm.  I could have created greater complexity by throwing out the fact that gerunds could also appear after nothing but. After all, if but functions as a preposition, then we know that gerunds could also be indirect objects. Consider this example: “There is nothing but whining and arguing at those committee meetings.” (See comment below about dummy subjects.)

However, I felt it best to limit discussion to the two constructions [nothing but + base verb] and [no choice but + infinitive]. The latter phrase has a noun, and nouns can have infinitive complements: the right to remain silent, the need to express oneself, the choice to be free. The infinitives help us define those nouns, those ideas. It doesn’t matter if the phrase is affirmative or negative: no rights to exercise, no needs to speak of, no choice but to fight. Agreed?

As for nothing but, dictionaries prefer to use examples with noun and pronoun objects. We could start with such examples to help students discover the meaning of this phrase: They serve nothing but healthy food. = They serve only healthy food. We can then start offering more examples to show the range of objects: They serve nothing but the best. = They only serve the best. / The food critic did nothing but complain.= The food critic only complained. (He did nothing else.)

I think it’s easier to see nothing but as an equivalent of only, as noted in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Comparing it to except creates confusion for learners because we also have except for and constructions like except do something and except to do something. I also think it’s helpful to show the patterns that are most frequent. We usually see [nothing but + base verb] after a form of do: He did nothing but complain. She plans to do nothing but sleep. We‘ve done nothing but work, work, work. Sometimes the most helpful explanation to a question is not about targeting the why aspect, but rather targeting what the standard is.

If you’d like to help your students learn some standard patterns with but as a preposition, please check out my Nothing but the Truth_handout.

If you’d like to help me gain greater clarity on this topic, please post a comment. Thank you!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Ivy Love says:

    May I ask you a question? Is that possible to use both gerund and base verb after NOTHING BUT.
    And we can not use NOTHING BUTT with gerund while there’s a form of do?

    1. Hello Ivy. Yes, I believe we can have both gerunds and the base form of a verb after “nothing but” to refer to only that particular activity or only that particular action. What’s the difference?

      Well, one difference is that we can use gerunds as subjects and dummy subjects, but we can’t use the base form of the verb that way. I think that’s why we see gerunds in sentences with “There” + BE.
      For frontier women there was nothing but cleaning, washing, cooking, sewing, and helping with the farm.

      I don’t think we can make a rule that if there’s a form of DO we can’t use a gerund, but again we can look for common patterns. What’s more standard? I think it’s more common to see a form of DO + “nothing but” + base form of the verb (do nothing but complain).

      That doesn’t mean we can’t come up with an example with an -ing form in this structure. Remember my example about the food critic complaining? Instead of a closed period of time, we can try talking about past moment at which there was an ongoing action: He was being awful. He was doing nothing but complaining about the food and making difficult requests.

      Perhaps the need for the -ing form after “nothing but” is tied to the progressive meaning? I can’t find confirmation of this, but it seems to be a possible explanation. Doing a Google search for more examples, I see this pattern when DO is used in the progressive or as a gerund. For example, here’s one guy’s political blog. Look at his title http://www.thomhartmann.com/users/iratecitizen/blog/2011/08/fed-doing-nothing-complaining-four-years.

      Thanks for taking the time to ask questions and reflect with me.🙂

      1. Ivy Love says:

        I do understand now, thank you very much

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