“Adverbs characteristically modify verbs and other categories except nouns, especially adjectives and adverbs.” (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p.563)

“The basic division, then, is between words that modify nouns, and words that modify other categories (categories of words or of larger constituents). The noun modifiers are adjectives, and the others are adverbs.” (A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston & Pullum, p.123)

Even though adverbs are excluded, by said definition, from modifying nouns, the so-called focusing adverbs are found in CGEL and COCA, that modify nouns, proper nouns and pronouns.

You are the only boy.
Only Kim resigned.
Only he knows.

Can they be regarded as exceptions of the definition? Or is there a certain reason, for example, the focusing range being movable or sometimes ambiguous we cannot say definitely that the adverbs modify only nouns?

  • 1
    In You are the only boy, I'd say only is simply an adjective. That does not answer for the other two examples, though...
    – oerkelens
    Jul 31, 2014 at 14:48
  • 3
    "Focussing adverb" is not a standard term. And definitions of "adverb" are usually useless for identification. Only is a Quantifier. Like all quantifiers, it has lots of special syntax. And it has a very complex meaning; part assertion, part presupposition. Larry Horn explains them in his classic 1969 paper. Jul 31, 2014 at 15:13
  • 2
    No problem, if you have a usable definition of "focussing". Also of "modification", since quantifiers don't always "modify" the same word that they "focus on" or "bind". Inventing new grammatical terminology is a good way to make sure nobody else will ever understand you -- or anyone you've taught with it. Jul 31, 2014 at 22:04
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    I've long considered that even when say 'only' attaches [not a 'standard grammatical usage' of 'attaches'] to the verb {He only asked}, it is not really modifying the verb in any meaningful sense, but is saying something beyond the content of the statement {He asked}: 'The only thing he did was to ask'. This is not a basic adverbial function. It's time these usages were better analysed and separated, in the same way that determiners are now distinguished from adjectives. Jul 31, 2014 at 23:19
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    @EdwinAshworth I’ve read your words here. Bas Aarts says relative clause is an adjunct which modifies antecedents. But in CGEL or your words, it’s hard to say that ‘adjunct’ includes the words modifying nouns. In ‘He died young (CGEL,p.263)’, is ‘young’ a modifier of ‘he’, ‘died’, or ‘he died’?
    – Listenever
    Aug 1, 2014 at 2:46

2 Answers 2


The key is in this passage:

[Adjectives are] words that modify nouns, and [adverbs are] words that modify other categories (categories of words or of larger constituents).

Here, only is modifying a "larger constituent"—namely, a noun phrase (NP). You have given examples where the noun phrase consists of one word, but if you replace the noun phrase with a multi-word one, you would see that only would have to apply to the entire phrase, and not just with a single noun.

Consider if we replaced the noun with a longer noun phrase:

Only [Kim] resigned → Only [Sarah and Kim] resigned.

Note that only modifies the whole phrase, and not just the noun itself.

  • Yes, but I could probably convince myself that "Sarah and only one other director resigned" might be valid in some contexts. Jul 31, 2014 at 15:30
  • @FumbleFingers sure--where only is modifying the constituent "one other director"
    – nohat
    Jul 31, 2014 at 15:32
  • @FumbleFingers but you're right--my example is misleading because single-word constituents can still be modified. I have removed that part of my answer.
    – nohat
    Jul 31, 2014 at 15:34
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    I'm far from convinced the adverb/adjective distinction is as important as the constant stream of related questions here might suggest (Don't you linguistics johnnies sometimes just use adverb for both anyway?). But contrasting "I smoke only cigars and cigarettes" with "I smoke small cigars and cigarettes", it seems clear to me that the scope of "only" more readily stretches across the entire noun phrase. Or is that just a fluke of the pragmatics/semantics of the particular nouns? Jul 31, 2014 at 15:47
  • 2
    Us linguistic johnnies use it to describe characteristic usage, not characteristic lexical items. Adverbs are constituents that are characteristically oblique in semantics and variable in positioning options. They should be thought of as peripheral to the sentence -- afterthoughts, qualifications, etc. I prefer to use a non-structural metaphor, since adverbs are pretty floppy things to use in construction. The proposition is the nourishment, and adverbs are garnish, flavoring, or hot sauce; like a sauce, the exact modificational range of an adverb is a bit problematic. Jul 31, 2014 at 16:01

You are the only boy.

Only Kim resigned.

Only he knows.

No, they are not exceptions.

In your first sentence, only is an Adjective. And occurs in a Noun Phrase structure - Determinative + [adjective + Head Noun]NOMINAL

In your second and third sentence only is a Focusing ModifierFUNCTION and here it's not an Adjective, it's an Adverb.

In your second sentence, only modifies the whole clause - Kim resigned. And similarly in your third sentence, it modifies he knows.

CaGEL says Focusing Modifiers can have multiple focusing elements, and depending on that the meaning can vary. The syntactically modified constituents can sometime contain the focused element, or it may contain not.

It should be further noted that CaGEL does say that Personal Pronouns can take such Focusing Modifiers (realized by Adverbs) as External Modifiers.

It's done by him only.

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