How to use 'ONLY' correctly? - Basic English Grammar lesson

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How to Use the Word Only Correctly

Three Parts:

The word "only" is used often in common speech and in writing, but it can be used incorrectly. When it's used incorrectly, the listener or reader is may have a hard time figuring out what was really meant by the speaker. Avoid this confusion by using the word “only” properly in every sentence.


Understanding the Word “Only”

  1. Keep in mind “only” is a modifier.This means that it modifies what you are trying to say and acts as a descriptive word in your sentence. “Only” can have a strong presence in a sentence and can shift the meaning of a sentence drastically if it is used incorrectly.To create a clear sentence, you should place “only” next to the noun, subject, verb, or phrase you are trying to modify.
    • When the word “only” is misplaced in a sentence, it becomes a “misplaced modifier”. This means the modifier, for example “only”, is not placed beside the noun or other word it is trying to modify. This creates confusion on the part of the listener or reader because the sentence becomes awkward.
  2. Be aware of the casual use of “only” in English.You may notice that in everyday speech, people tend to place “only” in the wrong place in a sentence, and often, you can get a general sense of what they are trying to say. As with some grammatical rules, it can feel awkward to use the proper placement of a modifier in a casual conversation. Sometimes, you do not need to use “only” correctly, and your listeners can still understand what you mean.
    • But it’s important to use the correct placement of “only” in your sentence when writing a formal letter, a paper, or a piece of writing for the general public to ensure you do not confuse your reader.
  3. Understand the common misplacement of “only” in common speech.When we are talking in a conversation, we will often use “only” to indicate someone did only one thing. For example: “She only ate strawberries for dinner.”
    • In this sentence, the speaker likely means to say, she had strawberries for dinner and nothing else. The speaker is trying to modify “strawberries” when in fact “only” is misplaced and is modifying the verb “ate” in the sentence. So this means that the subject in the sentence, “she” does nothing else but eat strawberries for dinner. She doesn’t pick strawberries, she doesn’t prepare strawberries. She just eats them.
    • The correct placement of “only” in the sentence, based on the intended meaning, is: “She ate only strawberries for dinner.” The modifier, “only” is next to the noun it is modifying and is now grammatically correct. At first, it can feel awkward to say this sentence out loud. However, when you realize that the original sentence didn't mean what you intended, the correctly constructed sentence will start to feel more comfortable.

Using the Word “Only” Correctly

  1. Create examples of the different ways to use “only” in a sentence.The best way to get a sense of the proper use of the word “only” is to make your own example sentences and note what the “only” is modifying in each sentence.
    • For example, consider these five different placements of “only” in the same sentence:
    • “Only I like dancing at a party.”
    • “I only like dancing at a party.”
    • “I like only dancing at a party.”
    • “I like dancing only at a party.”
    • “I like dancing at only a party.”
  2. Use "only" in front of a subject to modify the subject.For example: “Only I like dancing at a party.” In this sentence, “only” is modifying the subject “I”. You are telling someone that no one else likes to dance at a party, only you.
    • You could view this sentence another way: “Only John danced at the party.” In this case, John was the only person who danced at the party, no one else. If this is your intended meaning, that John was the only dancer at the party, then you would place “only” at the beginning of the sentence so it modifies the subject, “John”.
  3. Place “only” before the first verb in a sentence to modify the first verb.For example: “I only like dancing at a party.” In this sentence, “only” is modifying the verb “like”. So this sentence means that the “I” likes to do just one thing at a party: dance. The “I” doesn’t praise or put down dancing at a party, the “I” just likes it. This use for the actual meaning is kind of rare because it's used to distinguish which verb is being referenced.

The third variant means that the person likes dancing and no other activities (talking, eating, etc) at a party.

In the fourth, "only" modifies "at", meaning no other preposition, such as "after" will do.

In the fifth sentence, "only" modifies "a party", meaning no other location or event, such as "in private" or "on stage".

    • You could look at this placement in a different situation or setting. For example: “John only cooks meat for his family.” This sentence works if John is a vegetarian and does not buy, prepare, or eat meat. But when he is with his family, who are diehard meat eaters, he will cook meat for them. In this case, the modifier is correctly placed as the sentence indicates that John will only cook meat for his family, and not do anything else with the meat.
  1. Use “only” in front of the second verb in a sentence to modify the second verb.For example: “I like only dancing at a party.” In this sentence, “only” is modifying “dancing”. This means that the “I” likes only one thing at a party: dancing. The speaker does not like talking, singing, chatting, or drinking in a party setting. The speaker likes dancing at a party and that is all, nothing else.
    • The use of “only” works better in a sentence that indicates the speaker only does one thing in a certain situation. For example: “I eat only vegetables.” This sentence is clear if you are a vegetarian and are telling someone about your diet. This means you consume vegetables and no meat or other food products.
  2. Place “only” in front of the ending phrase in the sentence to modify the phrase.For example: “I like dancing only at a party.” In this example, “only” is modifying “at a party”. This indicates that the speaker likes to dance when she is at a party, and that she does not dance any other time or at any other type of event.
    • You can look at this use of “only” another way: “John drinks scotch only with his dad.” This sentence means that John drinks scotch with his dad and with no one else.
  3. Adjust your use of “only” in your own writing.Now that you have looked at the four different ways “only” can be used in a sentence, note how you use “only” in your next essay, letter, or conversation.
    • Remember to always place “only” next to the item you want to modify in the sentence so the sentence is clear and your meaning is not confusing or awkward to your reader or listener. Look at the above examples to determine where "only" belongs in your sentence.
    • Another good tip is to do a search of your document if it is on a word processor for the word “only”. Check that you are using “only” correctly in each sentence and adjust the placement of “only” in a sentence if it is unclear or incorrect.

Usage Cheat Sheet

Community Q&A

  • Question
    "He died yesterday only." Why is it wrong?
    Top Answerer
    Because it means that he died on just one day, which is a statement too obvious to express. If you say, "He died only yesterday," that means he died very recently, as recently as yesterday.
  • Question
    "Donation of Rs.10000 only" - correct or incorrect?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Correct, if f you are saying that Rs.10000 is the only amount someone can donate.
  • Question
    When do we use "only" at the end of sentence?
    Top Answerer
    When the "only" is meant to modify the noun or verb that immediately precedes it. For example, "I like dancing with you only" means the same as "I like dancing with only you."
  • Question
    Which is correct: "I only use this bank account for the debt collector", or "I use only this account for the debt collector"?
    Top Answerer
    The latter.
  • Question
    Do the sentences "I only like dancing at a party" and "I like only dancing at a party" mean the same?
    Top Answerer
    In practice they do mean the same thing. In terms of the strictest syntax, they do not (as explained above).
  • Question
    What is the correct phrase to use: "I am left with only," or "I am only left with "?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Either way is technically acceptable, but people will understand your point more easily if you say, "I am left with only ."
  • Question
    According the explanation in the examples above, the phrases "I only like dancing..." and "I like only dancing..." are approximately synonymous? When the only thing "I" likes is dancing, are both phrases correct?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    "I only like dancing at a party" says that the only time you like dancing is at a party. "I like only dancing at a party" means that the only thing you like to do at a party is dance. If spoken with the right emphasis (emphasizing 'dancing' and not 'party'), the first could also convey the meaning of the second. But the second cannot convey the meaning of the first.
  • Question
    "We shall go to Kampala if we get money." How would I rewrite the sentence beginning with "only"?
    Top Answerer
    You could say, "Only if we get money will we go to Kampala."
  • Question
    "Digital Exclusive titles are only available for download and streaming" or "Digital Exclusive titles are available only for download and streaming"?
    Top Answerer
    The first example means "...titles are nothing but available..." The second example means "...available for nothing but download..."
  • Question
    Is the sentence "You may come with me if you want to, only if you are decently dressed." correct?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Yes, the sentence is correct if you would not allow the person you are speaking with to go with you if they are not decently dressed.
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