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In my dialect of English (American West Coast), the word only exclusively means exclusively. I've worked with folks from Southern India for a while (and used to live abroad in Dubai), and it seems to me that that in some Indian English dialects, the word "only" can be used for emphasis - it does not necessarily indicate exclusivity.

Here are a couple examples of the usage that I am talking about:

  • After the successful completion of the job and incorporation of the job results into 3D workspace, only sitepoints are displayed.
    • Other stuff was actually displayed, but the sitepoints should not have been, thus their presence was unusual.
  • ... calculation job failed to run on the following structure only.
    • Other structures may or may not work. This specific structure failed.
  • Only the following description is shown:
    • The description does not match the expected description.

This answer on ELU has a number of other examples of this usage.

My concern

I am writing up a document that will primarily be read by my Indian co-workers. Does only also mean exclusively in this version of English? Or would it be wise to be careful about my use of this word? Here's an example of my usage (from a list of guidelines):

  • Only use these once a bug has been found.
    • I mean that "these" should be used exclusively in a circumstance in which a bug has been found.

(note that this is not the same as Indian English use of "only", that person was having almost exactly the opposite issue. Also, I will of course send my document for revision to a supervisor in Bangalore before publishing it.)

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You give no examples of what you think might be strange usages. How can a non-Indian answer this question? –  John Lawler Apr 23 at 0:59
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@JohnLawler - good point, I'll walk through our bug-tracking system for some examples. –  dbw Apr 23 at 1:02
    
Thank you. Data is always preferable. –  John Lawler Apr 23 at 1:03
    
oh, my usage would probably be helpful. –  dbw Apr 23 at 1:19
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It can also be used to mean except. E.g., I finished the project, only when I pulled the trunk the light didn't go on. It seems to me that your usages are along these lines only they've inverted the word order. –  Jim Apr 23 at 4:48

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Edit: as I reread your question, I see that I'm not really answering it. I am advising against using only for emphasis.

I taught foreign students, including students from Southern Asia, for 18 years.

While my case is different from yours, in that I had to communicate with people from multiple cultures, I think the following generalization holds: the reader or listener takes the culture of the writer or speaker into account.

Since you are not of the same culture, and you clearly do not understand all it's nuances (otherwise you wouldn't be asking the question), you should not try to use that dialect. It would be easy to accidentally convey unintended meaning, or even be seen to be condescending. As you mention, it is vital that you get the local office to review your writing. (This is a whole different area with potential for cross-cultural misunderstanding.)

All this suggests that you should just communicate in clear "international" English, using simple, unambiguous language. As you should with any audience.

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In this usage, which is unconventional, only is being used where however may be a more conventional choice. The grammar is clearly not precisely the same. One cannot simply replace only with however in these cases.

In your example:

After the successful completion of the job and incorporation of the job results into 3D workspace, only sitepoints are displayed.

This could be stated more conventionally as:

The job completed successfully and the job results were incorporated into the 3D workspace, however site points are displayed.

I believe that the second construction will be perfectly clear to speakers of the Indian dialect that you are concerned about, while being more clear to other English speakers.

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I believe I have seen/heard this usage from native English speakers too. I would even be likely to use it, only now I have learned that it is unconventional. Hmm, it looks wrong in writing - it may be used mostly in spoken language. –  lrn Apr 23 at 7:41
    
@lrn - Using only instead of but or however is relatively common in my experience. What seems to be particular to some Indian English speakers is using only for this purpose at the end of the sentence. I've always assumed this comes from a Hindi syntactical convention or idiom being applied in translation. Similarly, lots of Indian English speakers I know would say "How it is going?" instead of "How's it going?" –  Joel Brown Apr 23 at 15:41

Your audience may be Indian but the use of "only" for emphasis does not translate well in the written form. Stick to standard writing practices. Your Indian co-workers will understand it for what it is.

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I would hie myself to the nearest large library and see what the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) opined on the question. The OED has surprisingly lengthy entries and does not shy away from discussions of dialectical usages.

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My usage matches that of the OED. This does not help me determine whether my/ the OED usage will be understood in the Indian dialect. –  dbw Apr 23 at 3:15

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