I'm referring to: https://www.lexico.com/definition/only

Do I understand it correctly that the meaning of "only" for "not until" is only valid for past actions in relation to dates:

I can say (as stated on the website):

  • A final report reached him only on January 15.

but I could not say:

  • *The final report will reach you only on January 15.

Instead, I would need to say one of the following:

  • The final report will reach you not before January 15.

  • The final report will each you on January 15.

  • The final report will reach you from January 15 (onwards). or
  • The final report will each you as of/as from January 15.

Of course, which one is to be chosen will depend on the context.

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  • You will see "His son finds out and it is only at the end of the play we discover the tragedy that results." and "It is only later that the investor discovers that the wine is far less valuable than they were led to believe." only after you click on "More example sentences". – zhantongz Feb 14 at 10:39
  • Thanks, these examples are fine, but my question was related to dates. Unfortunately, I missed mentioning this in my original question (apologies!), which is why I've just edited it. – ExOrbitant Feb 14 at 12:00

Do I understand correctly that the meaning of "only" for "not until" is only valid for past actions:


You will only be able to put the roof on after you have built the walls.

= You will not be able to put the roof on until you have built the walls.

  • Thanks, your example makes sense in this scenario, but does this also work with dates as shown in my examples? Interestingly, I have never heard someone saying 'a final report will reach him only on January 15' in the sense of "not before" or "at the earliest". "only on January 15" would mean that the person receives the report at this day and not at any other day. – ExOrbitant Feb 14 at 11:55
  • The problem is a lack of context: A:"On the ninth of January, he wrote that he did not know why the accident occurred! But it is clear from the final report that the brakes of the car were defective." B: That can be explained: the final report reached him only on January 15' THUS "only" gives us "did not reach him until".. From this we can create a context - "I am not going to tell him what I have brought him as a present. His birthday is on the 24th of May - He will know what is present is only on the 24th of May." – Greybeard Feb 14 at 12:15
  • Ok, that's understandable. Thank you! – ExOrbitant Feb 14 at 13:03

As @zhantongz points out, the 'future in the past' certainly allows the use of the 'not until' sense of only with 'events set in the (relative) future', and this includes dates as the change-point:

The savage, hideous war continued, and every right-thinking person, if not actively engaged, looked on in horror. Appalled. But only on the 6th of August 1945 would the world become aware that mankind now had the potential to destroy itself in perhaps a matter of days.

There is at least a connotation of there being something unfortunate / surprising / showing culpability / showing an unfortunate imperfection/falling short / mitigating, with 'only' in the temporal sense. (/ = and/or)

A final report reached him only on January 15 ...

  • so he was unable to take the necessary steps to avoid the collapse of the company.
  • and this in the age of computers.
  • (those responsible for the late delivery have been reprimanded).
  • so what happened next is hardly his fault.

And these connotations don't apply to a lot of statements about the future

We don't leave until September 17.

Examples like Greybeard's

You will only be able to play 'Queen Quong' after you have installed 'ViewFire 10.4'.

at the very least strongly connote, and quite possibly conflate with, the 'not unless' sense (and are totally idiomatic).

I'd say that if the licensing conditions mentioned apply (and usually only then), temporal 'only' is a legitimate (and possibly the best) option. Excepting those with the 'only if' overlap, statements about the unknown future licensing 'only', especially with regard to specific dates / times, are rarer. But

I forgot to post the Christmas card to the Sackville-Bagginses in the Shire; it will only get there on the 23rd of January 23rd – and that's if there are no orc-raiders on the Greenway. [showing an unfortunate imperfection/falling short]

seems acceptable.

  • As always helpful, thanks Edwin. If I read "it will only get there on the 23rd of January", I directly think about the card being received at this particular day and not any other day. I don't know why, but I would never think of "only" in this sense as "at the earliest". I think it is a bit philosophical because when they receive it that day (23rd), they will also have it in their possession on any other following day (if you know what I mean). – ExOrbitant Feb 14 at 13:16
  • "It will only get there on the 23rd of January" obviously shows very strong expectation rather than certainty (especially if the orcs get the bomb), but would only be said in a situation where this is later than might be wanted / needed / needed to be taken into account etc. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 14 at 16:16
  • Sounds reasonable:-) Thanks! If the orcs get the bomb, I‘ll call the nightelves – ExOrbitant Feb 14 at 20:46

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