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  1. Nobody but him was present.
  2. Nobody but he was present.

Which usage is correct?

I'm having tough time finding out which case of noun/pronoun should I use in a sentence. I know that I/He/She are nominative case while Me/Him/Her are in the objective case.

My thought process goes like this. In the above example:

  1. I see the verb "present".
  2. I search for the doer of the action. Here it is he/him.
  3. I declare he/him should come in nominative case as it is the subject. Therefore, it should come in nominative case (he).

But the correct answer is "him" in a book without giving explanation. Kindly help me solve this nominative/objective case.

  • This is a good question, imo, but (unfortunately) you have also just recently asked it over at the sister site ELU “Nobody but him was present.” or “Nobody but he was present.”. I didn't think either of those two answers over there to be of much value. -- Anyway . . . I think I've seen this specific construction asked about before, and I think there already is a detailed answer for it somewhere. Lemme look a bit around . . . – F.E. May 19 '15 at 0:59
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What role does the pronoun play in the sentence?  If it's a subject, it should be in the subjective case.  If it's an object, it should be in the objective case.

As I parse this sentence, "him" is the object of the preposition "but".  The prepositional phrase "but him" modifies the pronoun "nobody".  The nominative phrase "nobody but him" is the subject of the clause.  "Was" is the verb.  "Present" is a predicate adjective.

However, there is an alternate view.  The word "but" can also be a conjunction.  As a conjunction, it would join the subject "nobody" with the subject "he".  As a subject, "he" takes the subjective case.

Since both options are grammatically possible, which should we prefer?

I could say that, in my dialect, the first sounds more natural.  That may be true, but it isn't very helpful.

There is a version of this sentence such that "but" must be a preposition: "Nobody was present but him."  To my ear, this version means the same thing as the original.  For that reason, I recommend treating this instance of "but" as a preposition, and treating "him" as the object of a preposition.

7
  1. Nobody but him was present.
  2. Nobody but he was present.

Which usage is correct?

This question comes up a lot. In short, the answer is that in general both versions are acceptable. Though for some speakers, there might be some style differences between them, where the nominative "he" version might be considered to be rather formal in style.

A usage dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster's (Concise) Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU or MWCDEU), will usually discuss this issue. In my copy of MWCDEU, it is discussed within the "But" entry, section #2, pages 151-2. These are some of their examples:

  • . . . none but he can have seen them all --Times Literary Supp., 16 June 1966

  • Everybody but me among us old codgers proudly insists that he and his wife were married just like the kids of today --James Thurber, letter, 22 Dec. 1952

and this is their concluding paragraph:

Our conclusion is that the absolutists who insist that but is only a conjunction or only a preposition are wrong. But has functioned in both capacities since Old English and still does. You are correct in choosing to use it either way. Bear in mind, however, that conjunctive but followed by a nominative pronoun seems rather more literary than the preposition.


Here's some info from a vetted grammar source, the 2002 CGEL. On page 1312:

But with the sense "except": preposition vs coordinator

[19]

  • i.a. Everyone but Jill was told. - - - - - - - - b. *But Jill, everyone was told.

  • ii.a. Everyone but [ %I / %me ] was told. - - b. Everyone was told but me.

But here has the same meaning as the preposition except, suggesting that it too is a preposition. It differs syntactically from except, in that it can't occur initially, as shown in [i.b]: in this respect it is like a coordinator -- cf. property (d) of &2.1.

In [ii.a] both nominative and accusative forms of the pronoun are found, and this suggests that but can be construed as either a coordinator or a preposition. Following a coordinator, the pronoun will take nominative case because it is part of the subject (cf. neither Jill nor I was told); following a preposition it will take accusative case (cf. Everyone [ except / with the exception of ] me was told). In They told everyone but me the accusative is obligatory, but provides no evidence as to the structure since a coordinate pronoun in this position would also be accusative (They told neither Jill nor me).

Accusative is much the more usual case in [ii.a], with nominative very formal in style, and very much a minority variant: for most speakers but in this sense is a preposition. Notice, moreover, that in [ii.b], where but + pronoun is postposed, a nominative is virtually excluded even for speakers who have one in [ii.a]: it seems that in this position but is construed as a preposition by just about all speakers.

Legend for the symbols '*' and '%' :

  • * -- ungrammatical, e.g. *This books is mine.

  • % -- grammatical in some dialect(s) only, e.g. %He hadn't many friends.


NOTE: The 2002 CGEL is the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum (et al.), The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

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The whole matter of pronoun case is complicated, because over the last 400 years the English language has been drifting away from the 'classical' use of case, and the spoken language has drifted farther than the formal written language.

But in your example there is no conflict between the two. Although it can be inferred from what you say that he was in fact present, this is not what your sentence expresses. But is employed here as a preposition, not a conjunction, and the entire subject of was present is nobody. As a preposition, but requires a pronoun in the objective case, him, as its object. The preposition phrase but him is an adjunct, not an argument of the verb, as is apparent from the fact that we can move the preposition phrase:

Nobody was present but him . . . or, rather literarily
But him, nobody was present.

Or you can parenthesize it:

Nobody (but him) was present.

protected by Community Feb 13 at 15:55

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