English Grammar


Only is an adjective, an adverb and a conjunction. It combines with several other common words to create some useful phrases and collocations.

Only: the adjective
As an adjective, only means “single”. It often combines with the nouns “person”, “reason” and “way”:
• I was the only person in the shop.
• The only reason I came here was to see you.
• Is this the only way to do it?
An only child doesn’t have any brothers or sisters. The adjective only cannot stand alone. One can’t say:
I’m the only who remembers him.” Instead, one says:
• I’m the only person / one who remembers him.

The expression the only thing is can often be used to introduce an excuse or a reason for not doing something:
• I’d love to come with you. The only thing is I said I’d babysit for my sister.

Only: the adverb
As an adverb, only can mean “simply”, or “limited to”, or it can show that an amount (of time, money, etc.) is small:
• I was only joking.
• The phone is available only with a contract.
• She was only 18 when she got married.
• I paid only £5 for it.

The adverb only often introduces an emotional component, such as surprise, sympathy (Mitleid), disappointment or regret:
• It’s only 9 o’clock. Are you going to bed already?
• Give him a chance! He only started working here two days ago.
• Don’t buy the CD. You’ll only be disappointed.
• I only wish I had spoken to her.

The position of only, and other adverbs, depends on the focus. In spoken English, it often comes before a main verb; in more formal written English it usually comes after it:
• The T-shirt only cost £5. (The T-shirt cost only £5.)

Only: the conjunction
In informal, everyday English, only can mean “but”:
• I’d like to come with you, only I’ve promised to babysit for my sister.

Only just can be used for emphasis, to mean “a short time ago/before”:
• I’ve only just heard the news.
• We’d only just arrived when people started leaving.
Only just also means “almost not”:
– Is there enough coffee for everybody?
– Only just. (= It’s almost run out.)
• We managed to catch the plane, but only just. (= We almost missed it.)

Speakers often use only to + infinitive to say that what happened next was surprising or annoying:
• I dashed to the station to catch the 8.10 train, only to find it doesn’t run on Saturdays.

Only too… means “very”. It can introduce something you wish was different. It can also express willingness:
• I’m only too aware of the risks.
• She was only too happy to help.

Only … if
Only can combine with if to talk about conditions:
• They’ll let you in only if you have a ticket.
If only… expresses a strong wish:
• If only I could lose some weight!

Only + inversion
Not only … is also commonly followed by an auxiliary verb (Hilfsverb) and then by the  :
• Not only did they lose their money, (but) they were nearly killed.

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