I am confused about using the word only. I often hear it being used in many contexts that sound wrong to me - but I'm not sure if it's me or them.

Let me give some examples:

A: Where were you yesterday evening?
B: I was at the coffee house.
A: Hey, I was there only; how come we didn't meet?

I guess the correct usage here would be I was also there or I was there too, right?

How about this:

A: Did you complete that task?
B: No, but I am doing that only

The word only is used here to stress on the fact that he is doing that (and not something else). I guess this usage stems from an equivalent usage in Hindi and other Indian languages. What's the correct way to express this? I feel I am still working on that is not the same - it sounds more like I haven't figured out how to do it, as opposed to this is a difficult task, it'll take some time

Another one:

A: How many questions have you asked in this forum?
B: I have asked only one question.
C: I have asked one question only.

Who is correct - B or C?
I'm with B on this one, but I don't know if C is correct too.

PS: In case you haven't guessed it already, I'm not a native English speaker :)

5 Answers 5


Example 1 seems to be legitimate Indian English, see

Something which Indian English has that is not found in other varieties of English is the use of only and itself to emphasize time and place. It comes from the Hindi word hi and produces sentences like "I was in Toledo only" and "Can we meet tomorrow itself?"

extract from language in India

More discussion on 'only' in Indian English here Dustin Freeman

Example 2 is probably Indian English too. You could say you are concentrating on that task, if you wanted to be better understood by a foreign audience.

Example 3: either is correct, I would think the 2nd is more colloquial

I don't think you be misunderstood with any of these colloquialisms. To me they are colourful additions to the language

  • Thanks for the info on Indian English. Example 1 sounds more like a case where an English word was appropriated to translate a Hindi word that has no direct English equivalent. Or as Wikipedia puts it: "Several idiomatic forms, derived from Indian literary and vernacular language, also have made their way into Indian English." And later: "The use of colloquial phrases in schools, universities and formal situations will be considered incorrect and the speaker is advised to use formal British English." No reference for that last assertion is given, though.
    – Doug
    Commented Oct 1, 2010 at 19:02
  • #1 is considered as correct usage by most people around here, but they (or should I say we) don't stop there. I hear things like "Can we meet tomorrow only?" on a daily basis. That said, I can't find anything wrong with "Can we meet tomorrow itself?" - what would be the correct usage here?
    – Amarghosh
    Commented Oct 4, 2010 at 5:01

Only is an interesting word in that it can change the meaning of sentence depending on its placement. Take, for example, the sentence I love her. Putting only in all the different places in the sentence changes the meaning completely:

Only I love her: I am the only person that loves her.

I only love her: Love is the only feeling I have for her, nothing else.

I love only her: She is the only person I love.

I love her only: Same as the previous.

Back to the question at hand, I agree with both other posters that #1 is wrong, #2 is correct but awkward, and #3 is correct either way.

I would correct #2 by saying, "I am only doing that" or "I am only working on that." In conversation, I would probably stress it with, "I am only working on that—nothing else."

  • Fair enough, Cindi. You're right, I was looking at it from a purely American perspective. Commented Oct 1, 2010 at 19:21
  • Your observation about only is correct, but it is not exclusive to only. Generally, adverbs change their scope depending on their position. Replace only with even, for example, and you get the same thing happening.
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Oct 2, 2010 at 13:54
  • For what it's worth, in Indian English, the first three have the same meaning while "I love her only" means "She is precisely the person I love" (or, say, "Hey, that's the person I love!") — it puts emphasis on "her". Commented Sep 10, 2011 at 5:33

I agree with Midhat that #1 is completely wrong and #3 is fine either way. (For #3, answer C is less common and sounds very slightly stilted or overly formal, but still grammatically unobjectionable.)

For #2, I would say, "I am working on that exclusively." Meaning: I am not finished with that task, but I have made it my highest (and only) priority and will work on nothing else until it is finished.

  • Agreed. An alternative for 2 would also be: "I am only working on that." It's all about word positioning.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Oct 1, 2010 at 14:23
  • Thanks @cindi. I guess I should say that outside of Indian English, #1 would be considered incorrect.
    – Doug
    Commented Oct 1, 2010 at 19:03

The first instance looks plain wrong. Maybe the speaker wanted to Say I was there only yesterday, which can imply I was also there yesterday

#2 seems correct

#3 seems correct either way

  • #2 really isn't correct. See Doug's answer.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Oct 1, 2010 at 14:24
  • Thanks. Unfortunately, the first usage is the most common one I see around here :|
    – Amarghosh
    Commented Oct 1, 2010 at 14:24

Change the punctuation on #1 and it becomes

Hey, I was there; only how come we didn't meet?

The speaker is saying, I was there, too, but since I didn't see you, either there are special circumstances (you were wearing a disguise and hiding in a dark corner, or you popped in and out for only a minute), or you weren't really there and I've blown your alibi.

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