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Which is grammatically correct?

I can only do so much in this time.

or

I can do only so much in this time.

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4 Answers

up vote 22 down vote accepted

In the given example there's not much difference. But there can be a great deal of difference in other constructions involving the same idea. Consider:

I only eat fish when I'm sick.

I eat fish only when I'm sick.

I eat only fish when I'm sick.

I submit that the first sentence is a bit ambiguous, and could be clarified in the direction of the second or third. Two and three mean entirely different things.

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Well exemplified :) –  coleopterist Oct 17 '12 at 15:29
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It's worth noting that the ambiguity in the first sentence is essentially an inadequacy in the writing system. In their spoken form, intonation disambiguates readings of the first sentence and brings at least two different readings to the second. –  Neil Coffey Oct 17 '12 at 16:17
    
My general take is that placing only immediately before the verb is quite often the very worst possible place for it. I always rearrange if possible to make the sentence stronger. –  tchrist Oct 24 '12 at 11:43
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@tchrist: Milton was able to manage the feat quite handily in "On His Blindness" when he wrote, "They also serve who only stand and wait." I think the issue is placement of only as close as possible to the word that draws the distinction, be it verb, noun, preposition, or whatever. –  Robusto Oct 24 '12 at 12:00
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They are both grammatically correct, and both mean the same thing.

(However, "in this time" doesn't sound quite right in this context. "In the time available" might be better).

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Like with english.stackexchange.com/questions/5464/… I think the difference, to the extent that it exists at all, is one of emphasis. –  Marthaª Nov 23 '10 at 20:32
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I agree that these sentences here both mean the same thing, but want to add that this can't be generalized to any adverb next to a verb. Sometimes, it will make a difference which side of the verb the adverb is on. –  Kosmonaut Nov 23 '10 at 20:34
    
I'm not sure I understand the downvote for this. For the question that was actually asked, this answer is 100% correct. It's irrelevant that there might exist a question for which this is the wrong answer. –  Marthaª Nov 23 '10 at 21:30
    
They're both grammatically correct, but they don't necessarily mean the same thing. ?"I can just do so much in this time" versus "I can do just so much in this time": I think the first is questionable & the second means the same thing as "I can do only so much in this time". Some people are red/green colorblind & will tell you that they look the same; some are tone-deaf ("relatively insensitive to differences in musical pitch") & can't tell the difference between two different notes; & most native English speakers are semantically challenged & indiscriminate (cf. "fewer" vs. "less"). –  user21497 Jan 10 '13 at 10:50
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  1. "Only I eat fish when I'm sick" means "Only I, and nobody else, eat fish when I'm sick". In this case, only is an adjective, qualifying the pronoun which directly follows it, I.

  2. "I only eat fish when I'm sick" means "I only eat fish when I'm sick. That is the only thing I do with fish when I'm sick". In this case, only is an adverb, qualifying the verb which directly follows it, eat.

  3. "I eat only fish when I'm sick" means "I eat only fish when I'm sick; I eat nothing else beside fish". In this case, only is an adjective, qualifying the noun which directly follows it, fish.

  4. "I eat fish only when I'm sick" means "I eat fish only when I'm sick; when I am not sick, I do not eat fish." In this case, only is an adverb, qualifying the adverbial clause which directly follows it.

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"I only eat fish when I'm sick" would be more likely to be understood as "I don't eat fish except when I'm sick", or perhaps "When I'm sick, I eat nothing but fish". In order to ensure that the meaning was "The only thing I do to fish is eat then", extra emphasis would have to be placed on "eat" in pronunciation. –  psmears Jan 14 '11 at 15:51
    
I eat fish when only I'm sick. –  coleopterist Oct 17 '12 at 15:30
    
You've got the adverb/adjective dichotomy wrong. In all four of your sentences, only is an adverb. –  Talia Ford Oct 7 '13 at 6:28
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The latter is probably what you mean to say.

I can eat only so much in one sitting.

This means just what you think: In one sitting, you're only able to eat until you're full.

I can only eat so much in one sitting.

This implies that in this situation, you can only eat, as if you're compelled to do so. This is usually not what someone intends.

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No, the second example doesn't imply that - it can equally (probably even more likely) mean the same as the first example. –  psmears Jan 14 '11 at 15:53
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