I was watching a movie last night and a character, when asked a question, replies, "God only knows". Is that the correct usage? It sounds to me as if God just knows stuff and can't do anything about it, if you know what I mean. Isn't "Only God knows." more appropriate?

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    It's akin to saying "God alone knows". And yes, that's how it's said/used. However, if you think Only God knows is more appropriate, use that. Either way, people will understand it. – anongoodnurse Sep 12 '14 at 4:56
  • It the same usage of only as in you, and you only, are allowed in. – Jim Sep 12 '14 at 5:07
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    @Jim, I am not too sure whether it is the same usage. If we replace 'God' with 'James', there is a notable distinction; 'James only knows' and 'Only James knows'. So my question was whether the usage is idiomatically correct. – Jayachandran Sep 12 '14 at 5:17
  • @Jayachandran- The usage becomes ambiguous, but if you firmly plant the notion of only you as you onlythen transition to God only and even to James only you can see how it works. But I agree that no one would use James only that we because it would be misinterpreted. But the fact remains that "God only knows" does use that usage where it means only God but with the words order inverted. – Jim Sep 12 '14 at 5:34
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    TFD: "inf. Only God knows.; No one knows but God." ( idioms.thefreedictionary.com/God+only+knows! ) Also, it's an Indianism, a word-to-word translation of the popular Indian idiom. – Kris Sep 12 '14 at 7:26

It would be, if English had a more rigid word order. Or in written English, where the stresses and intonation of the spoken language do not always translate well, even when typographical cues like italics are employed.

In the case where one is stating that God merely knows, there would be a subtle stress and (usually) a rise in intonation over the word only (which would be more pronounced if one were being explicit, as when countering a suggestion that God should have been able to do something about the situation).

Without the stress (or with the stress on God instead), the two formulations are equivalent in meaning. Well, sort of equivalent. God only knows is an idiomatic phrase meaning more-or-less I don't know, and I doubt that anyone else does either. The alternative, Only God knows, is a little more philosophical, theological, or at least religious in tone, and means something more along the lines of That's beyond the ken of mere mortals. The strict literal meanings of both formulations are the same, but the implications are different because the more archaic inverted version has become idiomatic and lost its theological implication. An Anglophone atheist would have no more trouble saying God only knows in an ordinary conversation than, say, God damn it, but would only use Only God knows ironically.

  • Perfectly explained. "God only knows!" is an idiom. It's essentially a swear word. (Indeed, it is blasphemous!) It has no connection whatsoever to religion, philosophy, or "God". {Just as, when you use a swear word like "crap" - in fact that has utterly no connection to "crap" literally - it's just "a swear word".} "God only knows!" is an idiom identical to "who knows?!" but stronger, and blasphemous. In contrast "only God knows...", exactly as bye explains, signals religious issues literally. – Fattie Sep 12 '14 at 6:58
  • I'm struggling to think of another example where 'only' immediately before the verb (as in N only Vs) is used not to specify a limit on the verb. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 12 '14 at 8:01
  • @medica - Speaking as one, who associates pretty much exclusively with others, my experience says "not unless you're a hardcore antitheist". – bye Sep 12 '14 at 14:45
  • @EdwinAshworth books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=only+_VERB_ – Kris Sep 13 '14 at 8:19
  • @Kris How does this differentiate between 'God only knows' (only not specifying 'knowing' as opposed to 'fomenting', 'enabling'..., but the 'alone' sense) and the many instances of say 'John only walks [to work on Thursday]'? – Edwin Ashworth Sep 13 '14 at 8:37

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