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I came across the following snippet when reading Endgame, a biography on Bobby Fischer (sorry, I cannot find a link here),

But Bobby was nothing but complex. Although much of his reading was confined to hate literature, he also embraced other works, such as Dag Hammarskjold's piquant book of aphorisms and poetry, Markings; and Eric Hoffer's The True Believer, which in many ways repudiates Armstrongism...

Most of the definitions I can find online is for 'nothing but + noun.' with the meaning of 'only, merely something'. But it doesn't really fit here in this context. Any ideas?

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    It means "nothing if not"--he was complex. It's a little awkward, but it's clear what the author is trying to say.
    – Xanne
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 20:25
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    ... And it grades into 'Every aspect of his personality was complex.' Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 21:14
  • The two 'buts' result in an awkward sentence. However, it might make more sense in the context of the paragraph immediately preceding this one. Does it? Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 22:00
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    I think @Xanne worded it best. It's much like an idiom in English and hard to deduce from the words themselves if you are not a native speaker. It means "they are nothing if not complex". That might seem illogical because of the word "nothing". It doesn't literally mean "not anything" or "absent of being". That's what makes this idiomatic in English. We usually use it to emphasize that they are very complex.
    – Kace36
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 22:45
  • But works like Except here. Nothing else except complex. Very complex and only that. What about a little something else? Absolutely not, nothing but complex. Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 2:27

2 Answers 2

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'Nothing but' generally implies 'only' but it's generally used for a greater impact or to emphasise a point or a contradiction.

In this case, the writer is emphasising that Bobby was very 'complex'. Based on the nature of this snippet, I would believe that previously it had been stated that Bobby wasn't complex, and so the writer uses 'nothing but' to highlight the stark contrast between the statement and the truth.

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In this scenario "nothing but complex" means he was 'very, if not only complex'. It is an idiom. An easy way to understand this is to replace 'nothing but' by 'only' as in "He was only complex". The author tries to say that "complex" is everything he is.

Examples:
"He did nothing but sports for three days." to "He only did sports for three days."
"He ate nothing but ice-cream." to "He only ate ice-cream."

Using 'only' in this case though reduces the impact from the sentence.

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  • Your second example actually illustrates the value of the 'nothing but' construction. If you say "He did nothing but sports for three days" it's clear that he dedicated three days to sports to the exclusion of all other activities, however "He only did sports for three days" suggests that he did sports for three days, stopped doing sports, and never did sports again. You could say "He did only sports for three days" and carry the intended meaning but, although it's grammatically correct very few English speakers would use it in normal speech.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jan 7, 2018 at 22:48

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