11

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?

7

"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.

  • I am not an expert on the English language and have no formal qualifications English. I offer my advice as a native British English speaker. I believe the advice of an untrained English speaker can sometimes be beneficial – RedPython Mar 24 '17 at 8:22
  • XD, in before on "cuts and bruises" vs "bruises and cuts", which there is a link to ngrams about that in my comment on the question. I'm not really sure why more people find it natural either -- maybe it has to do with the syllable count of the words? – gattsbr Mar 24 '17 at 8:39
  • @gattsbr Thanks for that link. I am not entirely sure what an Ngram is but from the link I guess it is something to do with how words are used. It might be something I look into in the future as that was one fabulous graph you linked to. Like I said, I have no formal training in English and when I was at school they nether told us about ngrams! – RedPython Mar 24 '17 at 8:51
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    Basically, it shows the frequencies of phrase usage based on what's in books. – gattsbr Mar 24 '17 at 8:54
  • The sentence, "All he had was cuts and bruises" is common in Britain. When someone is involved in an accident but the injuries sustained are less serious than would be expected people often use this sentence even if it is not factually correct. An example. Alice: "Did you see that car drive of the cliff?". Bob: "Yes. I expect the driver is in a bad way". Alice: "No. All he had was cuts and bruises" – RedPython Mar 24 '17 at 9:04
6

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:

  • All he had were bruises and cuts.

"bruises and cuts" are plural subjects, countable nouns.

  • "All he had were bruises"
  • "All he had were cuts".

But "bruises and cuts" can also be a singular subject - one thing.

  • All he had was bruises and cuts. - [Bruises and cuts] was all he had.

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:

  • All I bought in the shop were two bottles of milk.

While "two bottles of milk" are multiple subjects they are better referred to as a single subject [two bottles of milk], so better:

  • All I bought in the shop was two bottles of milk.

You can change "two" to any amount and "bottles" to any subject.


On the other hand:

  • All I bought in the shop was tea, sugar and a few biscuits.

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.

  • All I bought in the shop were 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:

  • All I'd like to see are the Niagara Falls. [is] sounds odd.

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:

  • All that I am telling you are facts.

"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 I bought in the shop were two bottles of milk" sounds much more natural to me, but like you say it must be a personal thing. I think the advice I would give if you are actually trying to learn English in an environment with other English speakers is to emulate the people you are communication with. If on the other hand you are trying to pass a test then do whatever the examiner requires! – RedPython Mar 24 '17 at 9:34
  • @RedPython Yeh, sure, but if a test, say, has a question such as: "Choose the correct sentence: "All I ever wanted when I was a kid were toys" or "All I ever wanted when I was a kid was toys". Then it's either a bad test or the answer must be "Both are correct"! – SovereignSun Mar 24 '17 at 9:41
  • The only test I have taken in this subject was my high-school final exam, and I failed! I am not the best person to ask about the academic use of the language, my experience is as a native user of the language. My life experience suggests if you want to pass any test it is best to ask for guidance from the person setting the questions. Sure, there are good and bad questions. I feel that "All I ever wanted when I was a kid were toys is grammatically correct but don't take my word for it. Actual British English speakers don't always speak or write correctly. Languages evolve! – RedPython Mar 24 '17 at 10:09
  • @RedPython Yeh, as languages aren't anything like mathematics where there are rules you are bound to, they evolve creatively. As long as we develop the ways of communicating will too. – SovereignSun Mar 24 '17 at 10:13
4

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".

3
+50

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.

  • Any chance of a reference from CGEL or something like that? :-) – Araucaria Mar 29 '17 at 14:59
  • @Araucaria Hmmm not from CGEL, but I can give some reference from Quirk et al. but again it doesn't say strictly about All-cleft sentences, rather it says about what-cleft sentences. Quirk et al. page no. 767 (the note near the end). I will try to find some reference from CaGEL after my dinner :-) – Man_From_India Mar 29 '17 at 15:04
  • Ok, let me see if I can help you with that - when I get home ... :) – Araucaria Mar 29 '17 at 15:06
-1

'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.

  • Well, All is a quantifier that is non countable, so the noun phrase bruises and cuts has to be cast to non countable singular to conform (to what?). I mean, either way is slightly ungrammatical. "All he had was all he had" would be correct, therefore "He had bruises and cuts, which were ..." vs "He had ... which was all he had." are incongruent. Although, the bruises and cuts are the subject, a quantifier can't be a subject, so if I had to choose between either, I'd say you are correct. – Hector von Mar 22 '17 at 13:56
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    Both was and were are correct, but it's was that is more common, IMO. – Man_From_India Mar 22 '17 at 15:32
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    I am not fully understanding what your message is here. All I would like to add is that the 'all' in this phrase means 'there was nothing more serious than' The sentence is commonly used (in Britain at least) when someone is involved in an accident but the injuries sustained are less serious than would be expected as in Alice: "Did you see that car drive of the cliff?". Bob: "Yes. I expect the driver is in a bad way". Alice:"No. All he had were cuts and bruises" – RedPython Mar 24 '17 at 8:40
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    @SovereignSun I am not at all understanding what a Present Continuous tense is. You are probably more qualified than me to explain it. All I can say is that I am a typical native speaker of British English and that is how I use the language. I think this is fast becoming a chat and if you would like to chat further a chat room might be more appropriate. – RedPython Mar 24 '17 at 10:23
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    "was" isn't incorrect that's why I placed a down-vote! – SovereignSun Mar 28 '17 at 8:44

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