How and When to Use ‘Only’ in a Sentence

How and When to Use ‘Only’ in a Sentence

Many people grapple with language use or usage and are at a loss on how to use certain words in English. One of such words is the word: only. How and When to Use ‘Only’ in a Sentence is put together to deal with this challenge!

The Concept of Use and Usage

Take note that in language, the concept of ‘use’ deals with ‘how a word should be used’, while the concept of ‘usage’ has to do with how a word is being used’.

Constituent Elements of a Simple Sentence

We have to lay some foundations for a proper understanding of the topic at hand. ‘Only’ belongs to the Part of Speech known as Adverb. An adverb, or an adverbial, is part of the syntactic elements that make up a simple sentence. See Syntactic Elements of the Simple Sentence. We also refer to an adverbial as an adjunct. In another vein, ‘Only’ also belongs to the word class we know as Adjective. Adjectives modify a noun, pronoun or a noun phrase as the case may be; and ‘only’ can serve in this capacity.

Mobility of an Adjunct

Of all the elements that make up a clause or a simple sentence, the adverbial is the most mobile. What this means, in effect, is that it can appear at the initial position in a sentence, it can also be at the medial or at the final position.


  • Strictly speaking, migrating from a developing nation status to a developed one is a herculean task.
  • Migrating from a developing nation status to a developed one, strictly speaking, is a herculean task.
  • Migrating from a developing nation status to a developed one is a herculean task, strictly speaking.

Ubiquity of an Adjunct

An adjunct can also appear more in a sentence than any other element like the subject, predicator or complement. There can be more than one subject like compound or plural subject, we can have a verbal group comprising four verbs e. g. could have been found (See Aspects in English). We can have more than a complement or object, but the adjunct can appear more times in one sentence than any of these other syntactic elements of a simple sentence! Consider this example:

  • Once upon a time, in a little town, King Adesuwa always collected tax from the residents forcefully, arbitrarily and excessively.


Adjunct: Once upon a time

Adjunct: in a little town

Subject: King Adesuwa

Adjunct: always

Predicator: collected

Complement: tax from the residents

Adjunct: forcefully

Adjunct: arbitrarily

Adjunct: excessively

How and When to Use ‘Only’ in a Sentence

 As an Adverb, we can use ‘only’ to mean any of the following:


This is to show reference to one thing or person that is specifically involved in a situation. For example:

  • The golf club admits club members only
  • They mandate the special force to rescue only the president’s daughter.
  • The new electricity tariff applies only to new buildings.

 Signifying Condition

We use ‘only’ in this context to signify the condition that must be in place for something to happen or be true. For instance:

  • I will learn a trade, but only if you will pay for it.
  • She promised to eat the food only if I would join her.
  • Only when you pay your fees would you come into the class.
  • He agreed to sign the letter only if we present the candidate.


We also use ‘only’ to represent ‘merely’ which depicts ‘being nothing more than something specified’. For example:

  • She is only a child
  • We could only compile the names.
  • It was only part of the scene.
  • He was only making reference to your mistakes.
  • They regarded the loss as only a short-term hindrance.

 No more and no less

That is, the exact amount specified. Examples of this include:

  • There are only 3.3 people at work for every person retired.
  • We have only four bottles of water remaining in the fridge.
  • For the advertised position, only two people were eligible.

 As recently as: considered as happening very recently

For example:

  • He came only last March.
  • She resigned only a week ago.
  • We ratified the decision only a few minutes ago.

 Indicating event happening immediately after

This is used to introduce a surprising or unpleasant event that happens immediately after the one mentioned. For example:

  • We rushed to the kitchen, only to find all the pots empty.
  • The children went to the park only to find it closed.
  • Johnson did not see her maid for two days, only to discover she had run away with her money.

 How and When to Use “Only” in a Sentence

 As an Adjective, we can use ‘only’ to mean any of the following:

 Single person or thing

This is used to indicate the lone person or thing involved in a situation. For instance:

  • He is the only independent candidate for the election.
  • The only challenge between him and the Director can be resolved
  • The only problem is lack of electricity.
  • She was the only survivor of the gruesome attack.
  • Jane was the only one who paid for the book.

 With no siblings; with no brothers or sisters

  • He is an only child in the family.
  • She is the man’s only daughter.
  • Christians affirm that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God.

 Position of ‘only’

Only sometimes functions as a limiting adverb and consequently, we must avoid any form of ambiguity in its placement as its position in a sentence can determine the meaning of the whole sentence. Usually, as a rule, we put ‘only’ next to the word we want it to modify. For example:

  • He had only a pen.
  • Only he had a pen
  • He only had a pen.

 Where to avoid putting only

We must avoid using ‘only’ between a subject and a verb and between an auxiliary verb and the main verb. Look at these examples:

  • He only eats to please his mother.
  • He eats only to please his mother.
  • I will only start the repairs when you pay my fees.
  • I will start the repairs only when you pay my fees.

The second and third sentences are more acceptable.

 ‘Only’ serves as modifier to a nominal group

Consider the following sentence:

  • Only a military personnel can access the building.

‘Only’, as an adjective in this context, occurs in an environment where the nominal is also pre-modified by an article. Hence ‘only’ is either preceded by article ‘the’ or it is followed by any other article. For example:

  • Only a genius can pass without attending classes.

 This simply means that the person who will pass without class attendance must be a genius; and by implication, anyone who is not a genius cannot pass. On the other hand, we may have a sentence like this:

  • The only genius can pass without attending classes.

This presupposes that there is no other genius except the one we are referring to. There could be several geniuses in other places though.

Other uses of ‘Only’

In essence, ‘only’ in the adjective sense mostly occurs before the nominal group, not after it. Consider this sentence:

  • A cup of tea only is okay. (If we consider ‘a cup of tea’ as a whole unit (nominal group)
  • Only a cup of tea is okay (not more than a cup)

However, note that A cup of tea only is okay may be correct for pragmatic or discourse purpose.  We know that ‘tea’ refers to the ‘dry leaves’ (to which we could add sugar, milk, lemon, etc.). Therefore, A cup of tea only is okay would mean ‘tea without anything added to it’. Here, the focus then is on the quantified (tea) not the quantifier (cup).


  • A cup of tea is only okay. (A cup of tea is just okay).

This is no longer adjectival but adverbial.

Consider the following variations of ‘only’:

  • The only participant was forty years old.

(There was no other participant; the focus is the participant)

  • The participant was only forty years old.

(The participant was not more than forty years old; the focus is the age)

  • The participant only was forty years old.

(There were other people [maybe observers, reporters, umpires…] but none of them was forty except the participant)

I am sure reading and digesting this post, you will henceforth know how and when to use ‘only’ in a sentence

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