I found these sentences in my book:

  1. He did nothing but cry.

  2. He had no choice but to obey.

Example #1 uses a bare infinitive ("cry"), but example #2 uses a to-infinitive ("to obey").

Why is this so?

  • There might be related info in the 2002 CGEL, in the section "(g) Matrix-licensed complements", on pages 641-3. It seems that the complements of the PPs in your two examples might be licensed by the matrix clause itself. – F.E. Mar 26 '15 at 6:32

I think we can understand this syntax in terms of the verb in the matrix clause:

He did...

He had...

These verbs govern the objects on either side of but.

He did nothing but he (did) cry.

He had no choice but he (had) to obey.

We cannot say "*he did to cry". Nor can we say "*he had obey".


When he was rescued from the desert, the parched man did nothing but ________.

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    +1 But I suggest that the verb which governs to obey is not have to but choose -- derivative/cognate nouns often take the same sorts of complement as the verbs they're related to. – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 25 '15 at 14:15
  • Yes I get your point. Actually in my book says bare infinitive is used with 'but, than, and ,except, as, or'. So i get confused with these sentences. Sometimes this rule follows sometimes not. for example: "to give is better than to receive". In you example there should be bare infinitive. – starun008 Mar 25 '15 at 14:23
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    Now I am getting confuse again. You all are right. You all have your point to prove your rule. @Araucaria saying the infinitive has nothing to do with verb "had". It is contradicting the answer above answer than how to find what to use "bare infinitive" or "to + infinitive". – starun008 Mar 25 '15 at 19:50
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    @Araucaria: What underlying verb governs in "...had no alternative but to retreat"? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 25 '15 at 21:52
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    @TRomano I didn't say that there was an underlying verb. There are different types of complement clauses that a word may take: -ing, [for ...] to-infinitive, plain form, finite clause. But it seems that in those examples there is nothing special about the verb HAVE - (which isn't being used as part of a have to construction in the matrix clause anyhow). For the latest example, we might have "there was no alternative but to retreat". It doesn't seem like a good theory that the to-infinitive is because of BE. It seems to be because of something else ... It's interesting! :-) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Mar 26 '15 at 0:11

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