I have a question about the word "cry" in the following sentence:

She did nothing but cry all day.

A student of mine asked me why "crying" cannot be substituted for "cry" in this sentence. Even though I know that "crying" is ungrammatical, I had a difficult time explaining why. After searching for an answer in various grammar books and on the Internet, all I could find were the following rules:

1. "The infinitive is used without the particle TO in conjunction with the following expressions: RATHER/SOONER THAN; DO + ANYTHING/NOTHING/EVERYTHING BUT; ALL + DO:
I'd throw it away rather than give it to him.
This machine can do everything but talk.
My parents do nothing but complain.
All I did was offer him some advice.
BUT: There was nothing to do but (to) wait."

2. "After certain idiomatic expressions

* had better -, had best –

- We had better not park our car here.

- You had best start at once.

* cannot but

- I couldn't but agree to his terms. *term: condition, requirement

* do nothing but

- The baby does nothing but cry all day.

* would rather – (than) ...

- I would rather stay where I am.

- I would rather die than disgrace myself. *disgrace"

It seems that learners just need to memorize these rules about bare infinitives, but is there any more logical explanation? I have a feeling it's something really simple that I just haven't thought of!


Original Post
I'd consider this use of "but" (with its meaning of
"except") as a preposition. As explained in Quirk et al (CGEL) 9.58--pp. 707-8):

"The noun phrase with but-modification must contain a determiner or indefinite pronoun of absolute meaning (positive or negative): no, all, any, every. . ."

In other words, I would call the "nothing but (i.e., except) cry all day" structure a noun phrase, with the indefinite "nothing" the headword, followed by a prepositional phrase with a verb phrase as its object.
It's not the preposition per se that governs the form of the verbal complement. It's the constructions in the main clause that affect the forms of the verbal complements.

The examples you give show that each construction "licenses" or allows the bare infinitive.

Note that not all forms of each verb take the bare infinitive. If the complement of the main verb is a to- infinitive, to may optionally be used with the infinitive complement:

What we're attempting to do is (to) bring the parties together

What they're refusing to do is (to) withdraw their representative

If the main verb is in the progressive, the verbal complement is the -ing form:

All I was doing was offering him some advice

The puppy is doing nothing but making messes on the floor

Yes, each construction must be learned, one at a time. Unfortunately, there's no easier way.

Marilyn Martin

Thanks to everyone for all you replies to my question!


According to the examples you gave in your reply:

All I was doing was offering him some advice.

The puppy is doing nothing but making messes on the floor.

Would it also be possible to modify my original sentence in the same way?

All she was doing was nothing but crying all day.

I can't quite put my finger on it, but there is something that sounds strange about this sentence.
Very strange, indeed. Putting two such expressions together is either redundant or nonsensical. We say either

All she was doing was -ing


She was doing nothing but -ing

What follows the verb BE has to be a form of the verb--in this case, the -ing form.

Marilyn Martin
Hello Marilyn -
1. 'All she was doing was nothing but crying all day' doesn't sound so strange to me.. '' all' seems to emphasize the message.

2. (a) We did nothing but running for gym in high school.
(b) We did nothing but run for gym in high school.
(c) She did nothing but crying the whole afternoon.
(d) She did nothing but cry the whole afternoon.

Earlier I had asked about the correctness of 2c because I feel that 2 a-d are all correct. I think I hear 2c construction type in popular music.

To answer all parts of Tes's posting:


1. All she was doing was nothing but -ing

Google shows no examples of either all she was doing was nothing but..., all he was doing was nothing but..., or all they were doing was nothing but....

Sentence 2a),

We did nothing but running for gym in high school

is OK because "running" is the name of the school activity. It's akin to saying

We did nothing but drawing in our art classes; painting wasn't included

This is different from saying

He does nothing but draw fantasy figures all day

You may well have heard such a construction as 2c)

(2c) She did nothing but crying the whole afternoon.

...in popular music. Song lyrics, which are a form of poetry, are not always a reliable guide to English usage. Writers of lyrics are always striving for artistic effect. That's what makes them fresh and appealing.

Marilyn Martin

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