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Will these next two sentences confuse you?

1.I have only been to London once before.

2.I have been to London twice only.

Now for a more complicated example, I want to express that I have only been to London and only twice. Then I write the following sentence, but I feel it is somehow weird:

3.I have only been to London three times.

Why do I feel it is somehow weird? Because the third has the same grammar as sentence one.

But now to some extent I feel the third sentence didn’t make it clear that I have not been to anywhere else.

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Your first and third sentences are exactly what a native would say. From your second sentence we would understand both what you meant and that you were not a native speaker. –  Jim Mar 19 '13 at 1:00
    
It is very very very hard to understand what you are saying in pidgin English. I’ve tried to fix it, but if I have said something that you had not intended, you should speak up. –  tchrist Mar 19 '13 at 1:02
    
You can't say what you're trying to say in once clause: use two. "I have only been to London. I have visited the city twice." –  Cerberus Mar 19 '13 at 1:10
    
thanks for your correction. it is exactly what i want say. –  oda Mar 19 '13 at 1:13
    
@tchrist: It's Chinese-English (or broken English), not pidgin English. Even native speakers of Chinese who aren't fluent in English will have a difficult time understanding what the OP means. –  user21497 Mar 19 '13 at 1:17

1 Answer 1

up vote 2 down vote accepted

The placement of only in sentences is often a matter of contention.

Some speakers and writers don't care where they put it: they assume everyone will understand what they mean because they believe that everyone thinks and feels exactly the same way they do, a typically human presumption.

Other speakers and writers don't care because they believe that listeners and readers can read their minds: after all, they reason, I know what I mean! Everyone else will too.

Your sentences:

1 I have only been to London once before.

This is typical native-speaker English. All native speakers will understand it to mean I have been to London only once. The word before is superfluous unless you are now there a second time and uttering or writing this sentence. Notice, however, that I changed the position of the word only: I put it where it belongs, immediately before the word it modifies.

2 I have been to London twice only.

This is grammatical and idiomatic but somewhat rare. Normal syntax is either I have only been to London twice or I have been to London only twice. Because the word before is missing, there is no explicit implication that you are in London a third time when speaking or writing this sentence.

3 I have only been to London three times.

This is typical native-speaker English. All native speakers will understand it to mean I have been to London only three times. Your hope that the listener/reader will understand and assume that it means that you haven't been to foreign places other than London three times is misplaced: Native speakers don't pay attention to such things, only students of English grammar do.

Even the vast majority of professional linguists don't care where you put only because for them, as well as for native English-speakers, I've only been to London once equals I've been to London only once. Not for me, however.

But people who think and feel the way I do about where only belongs in any given sentence are shouted down and labeled peevish pedants or prescriptivists by the overwhelming majority of native speakers of English. But most people half a millennium ago told Christopher Columbus that he'd fall off the edge of the Earth if he sailed too far west, because they had a firmly fixed belief that the Earth was flat.

I don't bother arguing with people about this. I let them say and write what they want to say and write. The argument is a matter of faith; religious beliefs, like where only should be placed in any given sentence, should never be argued. I even sometimes say things like I've only been to London once (I can't help it: I'm a native speaker of English. I also sometimes speak Chinese-English because I hear and read it every day in Taiwan, so it seems quite normal to me, and I usually understand what it wants to say in idiomatic English), but I would always write it as I've been to London only once.

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I really appreciate the time you make. No doubt I am not good at English speaking, so it become the reason i come here to ask help. I always become confused with a trial thing when studying language. even though it is very hard, i am persisting. –  oda Mar 19 '13 at 1:57
    
@liu: I'm an English teacher who's lived in Japan (10 years) & Taiwan (16.75 years so far), & I've studied 9 languages (including Japanese & Chinese), so I understand the problems that language learners (especially native speakers of Chinese like my son & wife) have. Keep persisting! Research indicates that the most important factor for language learning is the number of hours of exposure to the language. The TOEIC people can reasonably accurately predict scores based on the number of hours a student has been exposed to English. Practice is the key. –  user21497 Mar 19 '13 at 2:43
    
omg,9 languages! It really beyond my imagination..I have learned a lot through your talking, patient and persistent, i will keep it in mind. thanks again for your instruction. –  oda Mar 19 '13 at 3:10

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