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I read a text where kids share their experiences about activities in a language camp, and I came across this sentence:

And we spoke only English.

I feel that something is wrong with this sentence, but I'm not sure. At first I thought it should be

And we spoke English only.

Then I thought that maybe this is the correct sentence:

And we spoke only English there.

Please help. Which version is correct?

marked as duplicate by Drew, tchrist, user140086, NVZ, ab2 May 17 '16 at 0:45

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  • 2
    Exact duplicate of english.stackexchange.com/q/5466 and english.stackexchange.com/q/74962 and many more besides. This question is also flawed because it requires that one accept its false premise that right and wrong can exist here. This is human language, not math: many, many grammatical solutions coëxist in contrapunctual correctness. – tchrist May 15 '16 at 18:30
  • They are all okay. Also quite natural would be And we only spoke English (there). – BillJ May 15 '16 at 18:55
  • 1
    The rule is that only (and other words with a focus, like even) may precede its focus, or it may precede any constituent that contains its focus, or it may go at the end of the sentence, where it is multiply ambiguous in print. In speech stress will identify the focus. – John Lawler May 15 '16 at 18:57
  • I'm not sure this is what you are getting at but there are two quite different senses in which only can be used (probably others besides). We spoke only English means we spoke nothing else but English. But if I say we drank only water, it can mean that we drank nothing else. But it can also mean that there was nothing better to drink e.g. the pub had no beer! Only in that sense is a statement of paucity, as in He is only eleven years old. – WS2 May 15 '16 at 20:23
  • Interestingly, focusing adverbs like only do not modify nouns or nominal (as opposed to NP's), so in my only reservation, for example, only is an adjective. – BillJ May 16 '16 at 7:51

And we spoke only English- Here, the speaker would say that the only language that they had used was English. It is truth that they know how to speak any other language and it is also possible that some of the people involve knew how to use other languages.

And we spoke English only- Means that the speaker, and the people involve only knows how to speak English language. As they had stated, they can speak only English language.

And we spoke only English there - Clearly, the speaker and the individual involve has a high probability that they can use other languages as a mean of communication. But, as stated on the sentence, they had only used English language in a certain location(In this case, at the language Camp).


It's just the beauty of the ambiguity of English. All 3 versions are fine, though I think the second one is a tad more awkward than the others.


I think this is remarkable question because all seem fine. However, they have some little differences as well I suppose. Lets analyse them shortly:

And we spoke only English, meaning they didn't speak any other language.

And we spoke only English there, meaning same with the previous one. "There" just made a specification in that sentence.


And we spoke English only, meaning they didn't do anything else. Think like, not even walking or any other activity that noticeable.

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