Sunday, July 29, 2012

I Only Saw Her Yesterday

The word 'only' in English can have many meanings. Taken out of context, it can even lead to misunderstandings. 

I saw her only yesterday.

This sentence could mean that the speaker had never seen 'her' until yesterday; on the other hand, what the speaker means could be that he/she even saw the other person ('her') as recently as yesterday.

As many other adverbs, 'only' also often tends to be placed between the subject and the verb (or, as the case may be, between the auxiliary verb and the main verb) of a sentence - particularly in informal usage. The above sentence, in both its senses, could be phrased as follows:

I only saw her yesterday.

In speech, it's usually possible through intonation to see which part of the sentence 'only' refers to. But in writing it may be ambiguous unless the meaning is clear from the context. For example, 'I only saw her yesterday' could mean either of the two things mentioned earlier; or perhaps that the speaker saw her, but didn't do anything else like talking to her; or it could be that the speaker saw no one except her yesterday.

Of course the sentence could have been rephrased as follows to avoid ambiguity in the last scenario above:

I saw only her yesterday.

And then there are other cases.

Trying to explain things to her will only make her angrier. (It'll have an undesirable effect, rather than a good one.)

You only can guess what she'll do next. (It's all you can do, though it's not going to help much.)

We only just caught the bus. 

In this sentence, they've just managed to catch the bus, but could well have missed it too.

If only I could speak to him once more. / If I only could speak to him once more.

Here the word 'only' doesn't really have a restrictive sense, but is being used in a structure that expresses a wish. It's similar to saying 'I wish I could speak to him once more.'

It is for members only.

Especially in official settings, 'only' - in the restrictive sense - is placed after the noun it qualifies, as in the above example.

She was the only one who helped me. 

When used as an attributive adjective this way, 'only' expresses the uniqueness of the noun it comes before; it's one of a kind. There's no room for ambiguity here. The above sentence, for example, asserts that only 'she' helped the speaker.

I'd like to help you, only I'm too busy right now.

This gives the reason why the speaker can't help the other person although he/she wants to do so. This type of structure is often used to present an excuse for not doing something, without hurting the others' feelings. (Here - and in the next example - 'only' functions as a conjunction.)

He looks just like his father, only taller. (If there's any difference, it's just that the son is taller.) 

Patterns like the following, which are used to point out an additional fact, are also worth noting.

She is not only pretty but also intelligent.

Not only does that SUV consume too much fuel, but it looks ugly too./ Not only does that SUV consume too much fuel; it looks ugly too.

(Image credit: Sarah_Ackerman)


  1. These variety of effects only happen on written text aren't they? When speaking, we can always adjust the word where we put additional weight and point the exact meaning.

    1. Yes, misunderstandings can usually be avoided through stress and intonation in speech.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...