I am a foreign English student and have a question regarding the placement of only in a sentence.

I wrote You can do all these things in only that city in an exam, which is apparently wrong. But switching the order of only and in changes the meaning. I want to say that you can do all the things without leaving the city. Not that it's the only city offering all the things.

Is my sentence correct and if not, what would be the correct way?

  • 1
    Of interest: position of “only”. The word "only" normally restricts the term that immediately follows.
    – Lawrence
    Jun 11 '18 at 14:50
  • 1
    "You can do all these things in only that city" is not ungrammatical, but sounds unnatural, and would only be used to emphasise a certain city when others have been discussed. The 'only normally restricts the term that immediately follows' advice is sadly not really helpful. 'You can do all these things only in that city' sounds more idiomatic (but specifies a location rather than a particular city), and 'You can only do all these things in that city' (italics to show emphasis) would probably be the usual way of saying the same thing. Jun 11 '18 at 14:59
  • @Lawrence However, it can also be used in postposition. Jun 11 '18 at 14:59
  • @OliverMason True :) . But in the OP's example, I don't think that's the case.
    – Lawrence
    Jun 11 '18 at 15:01
  • @Lawrence Indeed! Jun 11 '18 at 15:02

The sentence is perfectly fine for the sense the Original Poster intended - and Original Poster is also correct that if they move the word only, the meaning would be different. Unfortunately, however, the sentence is also ambiguous.

The two available meanings are:

  1. You cannot do all these things outside that city.
  2. You can do all these things within that one city alone.

The ambiguity arises because the word only can be seen to scope over the word can, which gives you reading number (1), or can can be seen to scope over the rest of the VP including the word only, which gives you reading number (2).

The Original Poster clearly intends meaning number (2), but there is no way to prevent the reader from understanding meaning number (1). Unfortunately for the Original Poster, if meaning number (1) is understood to be the intended meaning then this wouldn't be the most natural place to put the word only - which is why their teacher said it was wrong.

The best option here is a complete rephrasing:

You can do all these things within that one city.


In that city is a prepositional phrase, and only is not part of it unless you want to restrict your meaning to a particular city; so it cannot be placed inside of it. You have two options:

  1. before: do these things only in that city.
  2. after: do these things in that city only.

Both mean that that city is the only place where you can do these things. If you want to express that you do not need to leave the city, then you need to write something along the lines of do these things without leaving the city, or within the city.

Only will always exclude other locations, which is not what you mean here.

EDIT: I noticed a discrepancy between the heading and your example. If it is that city, then you could say in only that city, but again meaning that that is the only city. In only the city on the other hand won't work.

  • @Lawrence Sorry, yes, it's a prepositional phrase. Jun 11 '18 at 15:03
  • There is a difference between 'in only that city' (as opposed to in cities B, C and D) and 'only in that city' (as opposed to anywhere else). Jun 11 '18 at 15:04
  • Regarding your first sentence: "in only that city" is a legitimate phrase. There's no prohibition on putting "only" between "in" and "that city", except that putting it there might not properly convey the author's intent.
    – Lawrence
    Jun 11 '18 at 15:04
  • @EdwinAshworth & Lawrence: Thanks for your comments. I have tried to clarify what I meant. Jun 11 '18 at 15:08

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