Are these examples are all acceptable and illustrative of the same use of anything but? What constraints, if any, are at work?

  1. He looked anything but happy.

  2. He did anything but watch TV. (= ? He did not watch TV.)

  3. He did not do anything but watch TV.

  4. He will do anything but watch TV. (= ? He will not watch TV.)

  5. He will decide to do anything but watch TV.

I'd appreciate your help

  • Are you asking about these phrases as spoken or as written? Jul 28 '18 at 12:39
  • Maybe both. Have you noticed any difference when one mode rather than the other is used?
    – Apollyon
    Jul 28 '18 at 12:48
  • 1
    #2 is grammatical but the simple past did can appear odd and not idiomatic. I understand the sentence to be a statement by someone who had observed "his" behavior over a period of time and is now reporting that "he" did a very wide variety of things but at no time did he watch TV; he downright avoided TV. did anything but is an unidiomatic way to report that ongoing behavior. would do anything but or was doing anything but would be idiomatic. Jul 29 '18 at 13:56
  • 1
    Having first established the ongoing nature of the reported action using would do or was doing, you could then go on to say He did anything but watch TV. That we have to conjure up that context is what makes it seem unnatural "on its face". Jul 29 '18 at 13:59
  • 1
    If you want to tell a third party that Joe eats most things but has an aversion to bananas and so the third party should not expect him to eat bananas: He will eat anything but bananas would be OK. The simple fact without the nuance of expectation could be expressed with the simple present: He eats anything but bananas. Jul 29 '18 at 14:06

The first one is fine.

As for #2 and #4, talking about the person who avoids TV, you can either speak as though the situation is ongoing (if the person still doesn't watch TV), or speak of it as something that was true at some time in the past (such as when the person is deceased, or if the person formally avoided television but now watches regularly). These seem like natural ways to say these:

  • He will do anything but watch TV. (ongoing)
  • He would do anything but watch TV. (no longer true)

As for your #3 option:

He did not do anything but watch TV.

that means he watched television all the time, at the exclusion of all other activities. To emphasize that's true in the present, you would say:

He doesn't do anything but watch TV.


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