Dear All,

Please look at the following sentence :

"He does nothing but eat."

Q : Why is it "eat" and not "eats" ?

I understand that the sentence could have been formed from 2 sentences -

He does nothing. He does eat. = He does nothing but (does) eat.

What about -

He does nothing. He only eats. = He does nothing but (only) EATS.

Thank you.

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Original Post
This construction is common to several kinds of sentence involving the general verb "do." Compare:

My new cell phone does everything but tell me what my girlfriend is thinking

All my brother does is play video games from morning to night

What I do in my job is work out compromises between the opposing parties

There is one exception: If "do" in the main clause is in the progressive, the complement may be in the -ing form:

He was doing nothing but wait/waiting on tables until he was offered a part in "Lord of the Rings."

Here's a reposting of a thread on this same topic from November 2003, initiated by Kathryn:


posted November 14, 2003 01:54 AM
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!
Posts: 7 | From: Seoul, Korea | Registered: July 22, 2003

(My answer)

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 [/b]offering[/b] 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
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