6

Question #1: Which of the following sentences has the correct syntactic usage of the word "only"?

Question #2: What do the remaining sentences mean?

Examples:

  1. Only I gave him $1.
  2. I only gave him $1.
  3. I gave only him $1.
  4. I gave him only $1.
  5. I gave him $1 only.
2
  • 1
    +1, for this is actually an interesting question about the semantic scope of "only". Hopefully someone will provide a solid answer, or else a link to a solid answer. (Though, this type of question related to "only" probably has come up numerous times before.)
    – F.E.
    Jul 26 '15 at 5:16
  • OP, please do not accept an answer so quickly. Please wait at least a day or two.
    – F.E.
    Jul 26 '15 at 5:26
3

I believe all five are syntactically correct (under my own personal command of the English language).

  1. Only I gave him $1. I was the only person to give him $1.
    This might suggest that there was a situation in which others might have also given $1, but didn't.

    "He was begging for a dollar to use in the vending machine, but people passed him by. Only I gave him $1."

  2. I only gave him $1. I gave him money, but only $1.
    It probably implies that $1 is not that much to give.

    "He was two dollars short of the soda. I only gave him $1."

  3. I gave only him $1. He was the only person to whom I gave $1.
    It might imply that I could have given $1 to others as well, but didn't.

    "There were beggars up and down the street, but I gave only him $1."

  4. I gave him only $1. I would consider this identical and interchangeable with 'I only gave him $1', though I think this is the less common choice.

  5. I gave him $1 only. Identical in meaning to ‘I only gave him $1', with extra emphasis on the 'only’.

    "You accuse me of giving him $5, but I gave him $1 only!"

5
  • Your examples are good, but I don't think the last sentence is correct. "Only" can be used as an adjective or adverb, so should not be the last word in a sentence. It might be correct to end a sentence with "members only", but only because this is a commonly encountered word order on signs, etc.
    – Marconius
    Jul 26 '15 at 5:16
  • Er, there might be more to this than what's in your answer post. Consider: "[ I only ] gave him $1", with the intended meaning of: it was only I who gave him a dollar.
    – F.E.
    Jul 26 '15 at 5:32
  • 1
    @F.E, I'm not sure, how are those examples different than what I wrote? I guess 'I only gave him $1' could maybe convey 'it was only I who gave him a dollar,' but in most cases I would expect that to be written as 'I alone gave him $1.'
    – bob
    Jul 26 '15 at 5:37
  • 1
    A strict position-specific reading of "I only gave him $1" might insist on associating only with the verb gave, on the grounds that the sentence is structured as it is to emphasize that giving the money was the only action that "I" took. Such a sentence might arise, for example, in a conversation in which the other person asks "Did you get a receipt from him?" "No. I only gave him $1." But attempting to enforce such strict interpretations is a mad endeavor because almost no one accepts and adheres to such a rigid (and artificial) understanding of how only should be used.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 26 '15 at 6:14
  • Yes, they are all correct, and have different meanings. The classic example of this in my upbringing was the sentence "I didn't say you stole her money." You can put the emphasis on any one of the words, to get a different meaning.
    – Drew
    Jul 27 '15 at 0:55
1

According to the analysis in McCawley's The Syntactic Phenomena of English (starting around p. 68), "only" modifies a following constituent (other than S) which contains its focus. (The word "only" has other uses, as well.) The focus is the constituent which is contrasted with other possible items in the scope of the "only". The focus can be singled out by strong stress in the pronunciation.

In this example, assuming the sentence structure

[NP I] [V' [V gave] [NP him] [NP one dollar] ]

McCawley's rule gives the following results:

1. Only I gave him $1.  focus is "I"
2. I only gave him $1.  focus is "gave" or "him" or "1" or "$"
3. I gave only him $1.  focus is "him"
4. I gave him only $1.  focus is "1" or "$"
5. I gave him $1 only.  (case of post-nominal modifier not covered)

For 2. above, "only" could either modify just the verb "gave" or the entire V', and when it modifies the V', its focus could be any constituent in the V' -- that's why there are so many alternative readings. Similarly for 5, if "only" modifies the whole following NP, its focus could be on either constituent inside that NP.

Multi-word constituents can also be focuses in McCawley's analysis, but in this example I have neglected this possibility.

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