I have heard and seen "only ever" used as in: "I only ever clean my car when the sun is high." I live in Massachusetts and never heard this usage until recently. I understand the meaning, but wonder if this is a regional usage.

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    It only ever seemed like a perfectly natural usage to me (I'm sure I've been using it freely for half a century or more, here in the UK). So I was a bit surprised to find that my NGram suggests it's only only recently gained significant traction. Jan 24, 2016 at 18:02
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    I was born and raised in the South and lived here almost my entire life, and have heard 'only ever' all my life. I think it's a fairly literal expression.
    – Tim Ward
    Jan 24, 2016 at 18:22
  • @FumbleFingers I think what you're seeing is only ever becoming more common as written texts get less formal in style. But that's only a guess ... Apr 18, 2017 at 11:38
  • Not common here in the US Midwest, but I have heard it from speakers of other dialects.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 8, 2017 at 1:39
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    No, categorically, "only ever" is not regional. I live in Massachusetts also.
    – Lambie
    May 26, 2022 at 0:25

4 Answers 4


"Ever" is an intensifier, with its proximity to "only" adding to its effect. Grammatically, these mean the same thing.

"I only ever clean my car when the sun is high" "I only clean my car when the sun is high, ever."

It functions similarly to "at all"


I, too, have lived in the South all my life--I'm 73--and have never heard "only ever" used except in books. It sounds awkward to me, since just the word 'only' means the same thing.

  • Please explain your answer, preferably with some supporting statements and references. While opinions are valued, they are not of much help as answers.
    – NVZ
    Feb 17, 2017 at 12:41

Some possibly relevant sixteenth-century instances of 'only ever'

The use of "only ever" to mean something like "alone" or "exclusively" or "on no other occasion than" or "never except" is quite old in English. Here are a few relevant examples that an Early English Books Online searches turn up.

From a 1533 translation of Desiderius Erasmus, A Booke Called in Latyn Enchiridion Militis Christiani, and in Englysshe the Manuell of the Christen Knyght Replenysshed with Moste Holsome Preceptes:

Last of all that power whiche desyreth the voluptuous pleasure of meate and drynke wherby also we be moued to bodyly lust he banysshed vtterly awaye far fro the kyng {is} palays downe alowe bynethe the mydrys•e in to the lyuer and the paunche that as it were a certeyn wylde beest vntamed he sholde there stable and dwell at the racke for bycause that power is accustomed to reyse vp mocyons moost violent & to be disobedyent to the commaundementes of the kynge. what beestlynesse ye and what rebellyon is in the lowest porcyon of this power at the leestwaye the preuy partes of thy body may teche the in whiche parte chefely this power of concupiscence rageth and tyranny reygneth which also of all membres onely euer among maketh rebellyon with vnclenly mocions the kyng cryenge the contrary & that in vayne. Thou seest than euydently how that this noble beest man so goodly a thynge aboue playnly & without any excepcyon endeth in an vnreasonable or brute beest.

From Thomas Starkey, A Preface to the Kynges Hyghnes (1536):

And as in the spiritual lyfe, we must euer moste regarde this vnitie spirituall, so in the worldlye muste be had respecte of the polyticall, the which brefely to deseribe is nothing els but a concorde, agrement and a consent of all them whiche be in one polyce, to the receyuynge and puttynge in vse suche lawes, constitutions, and ordynances, as by polityke wyttes are deuysed to the conseruation of the worldly quietnes and tranquillyte to the whiche as to the chiefe ende, onely euer loked they, whiche without the lyghte of Christe, haue in any coūtreys stablyshed any polycie. For to this ende loked Plato, where as in his deuysed common weale, with the communitie of thinges, he pourposed aboue all thynge to grounde therin this vnitie.

From a 1547 translation of Hermann von Wied, A Simple, and Religious Consultation of Vs Herman by the Grace of God Archebishop of Colone, and Prince Electour:

Demaun. Why sayest thou God almightie maker of heauen and earth? Answere. Bycause I beleue that god, as he made al other thynges, so he made me of nothynge by his onely sonne, oure Lorde Iesus Christe, and preserueth, and gouerneth thorowe the same Iesus Christe alone, and is present in euerie place, and worketh all good thynges in all men, thorowe his onely euer wyse purpose and ryghtuous wyl.

From Batholomew Traheron, An Exposition of a Parte of S. Iohannes Gospel Made in Sondrie Readinges in the English Congregation (1557):

For God beginneth not newe counsels, and purposes. But his purposes are eternal, & altogether, & he nedeth not time to deuise & purpose one thing after another, which is mans weaknesse. For he seeth all that he wil dooe at once with one sight, whiche if we coulde doe we would not take one counsell after another. But oure weaknesse compelleth vs so to doe, whiche is farre from God, and therefore all his purposes be in him together, & at once. But sith his sonne was in him before Abraham, it muste nedes be, that he was otherwise in him, than in purpose.

And in dede he that is euer in substāce and beeinge, maye well be saied to bee before him, that was onely euer in purpose, and not in substance, and verie beeing. Thus thys heresye also laieth flatte vpon the grounde with out life, or breathing.

And from a 1567 translation by Arthur Golding of Ovid, The .XV. Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso, Entytuled Metamorphosis:

Shée [Venus] looked pale. And as the Goddes came any in her way, / Shée sayd vntoo them one by one. Behold and sée I pray, / With how exceeding eagernesse they séeke mée too betray, / And with what woondrous craft they stryue too take my lyfe away, / I méene the thing that only now remayneth vntoo mée / Of Iule the Troians race. Must I then only euer bée / Thus vext with vndeserued cares?

Use of 'only ever' during the period 1650–1860

This phrasing becomes considerably less common over the next three centuries, except in the negative form "not only ever," which parses somewhat differently—as meaning something like "not just always." An example of "not only always in its special sense appears in the epistle dedicatory of Richard Bolton, A Justice of Peace for Ireland (1683):

Mine errors or mistakings I shall humbly beseech your Lordship [Viscount Wentworth] to pardon, and impute them rather to my weakness, want of ability, and multiplicity of other Employments, then to my will ; and to accept this small Mite as a free-will offering at the hands of him, who for Your Lordships many Noble Favours, will not only ever pray for your Happiness and long continuance in this place of Government, but also earnestly desire to manifest his thankfulness for the same, and to be accounted Your Lordships Humble and Faithful Servant, Ri. Bolton.

The older positive form does occasionally occur during this period, however, as in "Pious Resolves" in The Lady's Curiosity: or, Weekly Apollo, number 28 (1752):

Ah can my heart refrain? / No; I my grateful pow'rs resign, / I'm only ever thine. / Firm may th' impressing vows remain!

From J.C. Ryle, "Are You Forgiven? A Question for 1850" (1849):

Let this be the spirit in which you and I are found this year. Let us think lightly of the world's gifts. Let us sit calmly under its cares. Let us care for nothing, if we may only ever see the King's face, if we may only ever abide in Christ.

And from a letter from Mini L'Angelier (Madeleine Smith) of Glasgow, Scotland, to Emile L'Angelier dated November 21, 1856, in Trial of Madeleine Smith (Notable Scottish Trials series, 1905):

I was to tell you about the poor young fellow at Stirling. Well, he, poor, stupid boy, would keep so near me—only speak to me—and to finish all he told me he could only ever love me. I told him I did not care a bit for him—and, only fancy, he began to weep.

Some occurrences of 'only ever' from the period 1900–1951

The upsurge in occurrences of "only ever" is quite clearly a phenomenon of the past seventy years, as this Ngram chart for the period 1700–2019 vividly suggests:

However, modern use of the expression dates to the early twentieth century at least. For example, from a statement by Sir Robert Giffen, cited in a speech by Mr Glynn (representative for South Australia) in "Motion of Censure" (October 29, 1901), reprinted in [Australian] Parliamentary Debates, volume 5 (1902):

We can well believe that in no country can the factory operatives for home consumption only ever occupy more than 5 per cent. of the working population.

From W.L. Bonnell, "Laws and Secret of Producing Sex" in Medical Century: The National Journal of Homœopathic Medicine and Surgery (June 1910):

A young woman died under Dawson's care. She had a history of only ever menstruating three times. Post-mortem showed two cicatrices [scars] on one ovary and one on the other.

From the cross-examination of Hugo Lehman, a witness in New York v. Louis Thau (May 28, 1914):

Q. How many cars were kept on the floor? A. Perhaps thirty.

Q. Thirty? A. Yes, sir.

Q. And you say you have only ever seen two Ford cars there? A. Well, to my knowledge, to the best of my knowledge, yes, sir.

From Allen Tucker, "Materialism and Museums," in The Arts (October 1923):

For the very great message is probably only ever understood by a few. But by trying and studying, we develop so that ever more and more the subtleties and glories in, and carried by, works of ar[t] are revealed to our eyes and ears and spirits.

From the cross-examination of Frank Griswold, a witness in U.S. v. U.S. Gypsum Company, Certain-teed Products Corporation, et al. (October 18, 1943):

Q. Well, the minutes of the meeting of August 19, 1925, Exhibit 102, have reference to the appointment of the same committee, Mr. Griswold. The evidence shows that only one committee was appointed, and what I want to ask you is as to whether or not it is not your best recollection that that committee only ever had one meeting with Mr. Avery.

And from testimony of Ralph Kreitz of Reading, Pennsylvania, in U.S. Senate Special Committee, "Investigation of Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce" (June 28, 1951):

Mr. RICE [associate counsel for the special committee]. Is there a barber shop, or was there a barber shop, in the Old Colonial Hotel?

Mr. KREITZ. That I couldn't answer. In the old days of the Colonial Hotel, I only ever was in there once in my life. I was only ever in there one time in my life. In fact, that end of town, I don't get to. That is the central part of town. I am from the outskirts of town. And I wouldn't get thee.


Use of "only ever" in various senses dates back to the "onely euer" days of the sixteenth century. Non-negative instances of the expression from those days carry an array of meanings, including "alone," "exclusively," "on no other occasion than," and "never except." These are essentially the meanings that non-negative "only ever" carries today, although in common usage the phrase often functions as nothing more than an intensified version of "only."

In the first half of the twentieth century, instances of the expression show up in speech somewhat more frequently than in written English, but in more-recent decades, as writers have sought to narrow the distance between how they speak and how they write, occurrences of "only ever" have proliferated.

The expression seems not to be confined regionally—or indeed nationally, as published examples of its use appear in works from Britain, Australia, and various parts of the United States.


Never lived north of the Mason-Dixon line but have lived from far east Louisiana to the Pacific Ocean. "Only ever" is something I have never heard in person, I've only read it on the Internet. It's definitely redundant to "only."

  • It's more definite than simply "only", less admitting exceptions.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 8, 2022 at 9:18

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