All he had were bruises and cuts.
All he had was bruises and cuts.
What are the differences between these sentences? Are they both grammatical and, if so, which one is more natural?
"All he had were bruises and cuts" is the correct version to use because there is more than one bruise and more than one cut. 'was' would be used if there was only one bruise and/or cut. The sentence would be "All he had was a bruise and a cut.
You could also say "All he had were bruises and a cut" or "All he had was a bruise and some cuts". There are lots of combinations.
I find it more natural to say "cuts and bruises" rather than "bruises and cuts", but I am not sure why. Someone more qualified will probably be able to answer that.
I would also fully understand you if you said, "All he had was bruises and cuts", a lot of British people speak like that, me included. In an English test make sure you use 'were'. If you do use 'was' some people will feel the need to correct your English. Don't worry they correct my English too and I have been speaking it exclusively for 44 years.
All can be plural and singular as Cambridge Dictionary (or any other) says. So we can use an uncountable or a countable noun after it.
Both "was" and "were" are correct with your example.
With your examples, the simple way to understand it is:
"bruises and cuts" are plural subjects, countable nouns.
But "bruises and cuts" can also be a singular subject - one thing.
I am not a native-speaker but I have to admit that "cuts and bruises" sounds much better and closer to the ear.
Not always does "were" seem to fit in well with multiple subjects or plurals, here are a few examples I find really odd, but this is my personal view and experience:
While "two bottles of milk" are multiple subjects they are better referred to as a single subject [two bottles of milk], so better:
You can change "two" to any amount and "bottles" to any subject.
On the other hand:
This sentences gives a sense that I might have had much money but the prices were so high that I could afford only tea, sugar and a few biscuits.
This sentences gives a sense that I was running over a shopping list and I didn't need anything else to buy.
But this may be my personal view of the examples.
I have also found that with singular subjects, such as locations, "was","is","has" or any other, are bad to the ear and seem rather odd too:
As we can see "the Niagara Falls" is a singular subject, a name of a location, but "are" seems to sound better than "is" in this sentence.
Here's another interesting sentences:
"facts" acts in a singular sense here, but it also is a countable noun, so there may be "several facts". In my opinion "All that I am telling you is facts." sounds really odd and incorrect.
While I was writing this answer I stumbled upon two good examples from EnglishForums.Com:
"I need just one more thing (this gives a singular sense) to finish the shelter. All I needed was rocks."
"The creature had shown vulnerability to thrown objects (this gives a plural sense). To repel it, all I needed were rocks."
Another good list of examples on ELU - English Language & Usage.
All ((that) he had were cuts and bruises.
All (that) he had was cuts and bruises.
Both the sentences are correct.
The word "all" is a pronoun and the subject of the main clause (all was/were cuts and bruises) and "(that) he had" is a relative clause in the sentence. When you use the all in front of a relative clause, it usually means everything or the only thing according to most dictionaries. So, speaking strictly in terms of grammar, we should use a singular verb irrespective of a singular or a plural noun in front of it in the main clause.
In the sentence presented, as the all means "the only thing", it stands to reason that "the only thing" should take a singular verb i.e. was in the sentence. "All he had was cuts and bruises = The only thing he had was cuts and bruises".
However, many people tend to use a plural verb in front of a plural noun because the all can be used as a singular or a plural pronoun. Besides, according to the Longman Dicationary, the "all" means "the only thing or the only things. So it's also correct to use a plural verb i.e. were in front of plural nouns cuts and bruises in the sentence. "All he had were cuts and bruises = The only things he had were cuts and bruises".
All he had was/were cuts and bruises.
Here both was and were are correct. Generally, whether the verb will be singular or plural is decided by the subject of the sentence.
Here in your sentence the subject is All he had. Let's focus on the structure of the subject. It's a Noun Phrase (NP), headed by the fused head determinative - all. And then the head is post modified by a relative clause - he had. So the deciding factor whether the verb would be singular or plural is solely based on the head word all.
Here all he had is interpreted either as things that he had or as thing that he had. In the former case the expected verb is were and in the latter case the expected verb is was. That's why in your original sentence both was and were are correct.
However, it is my own opinion that the use of was is more common than were.
'Bruises' and 'cuts' are plurals. The word 'was' would be referring to a subject that is singular, so it would be incorrect in this sentence. 'Were' refers to plurals, so it would be correct.
There is no difference in the meaning of the sentences; it's just that one is grammatically incorrect.