Q: I’m editing this sentence for the publishing house where I work: “There were nothing but steep cliffs on all sides.” The verb should be “was,” no? “There” is a dummy subject, rendering the true subject “nothing,” which is singular. Can you tell me if my logic is unassailable?
A: You’re right that the verb should be singular, though we can’t say your logic is unassailable. There are exceptional cases, as we’ll explain later.
In that sentence, “there” is a dummy subject—one that’s required by syntax and merely occupies the obligatory subject position.
The true subject is “nothing.” And when used as a subject, “nothing”—even when followed by “but”—traditionally takes a singular verb, regardless of the noun (singular or plural) that follows.
The American Heritage Book of English Usage has this to say: “According to the traditional rule, nothing is invariably treated as a singular, even when followed by an exception phrase containing a plural noun.”
The book gives these examples: “Nothing except your fears stands (not stand) in your way. Nothing but roses meets (not meet) the eye.”
When the American Heritage editors use the word “traditional,” they’re not exaggerating. We found this example in a 1772 edition of Joseph Priestley’s The Rudiments of English Grammar:
“Nothing but the marvellous and supernatural hath any charms for them.” (Note the archaic singular “hath” for “has.”)
Constructions like “nothing but,” “nothing save,” and so on are venerable features of the language.
Since Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “nothing” has been used with a “limiting particle”—like “but,” “besides,” “except,” “save”—to mean “merely” or “only.”
So you’re right about that sentence, and you can feel justified in editing it to read, “There was nothing but steep cliffs on all sides.”
But here’s a qualification to keep in mind for future use, from the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).
In a usage note with its entry for “nothing,” the dictionary repeats the usual rule about using a singular verb with “nothing but,” then adds this:
“But there are certain contexts in which nothing but sounds quite natural with a plural verb and should not be considered inappropriate. In these sentences, constructions like nothing but function much like an adverb meaning ‘only,’ in a pattern similar to one seen in none but.
The usage note follows with this example: “Sometimes, for a couple of hours together, there were almost no houses; there were nothing but woods and rivers and lakes and horizons adorned with bright-looking mountains (Henry James).”
In our opinion, the Henry James example is worth remembering because it cries out for symmetry between those two clauses: “there were … there were….”