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What does the word 'only' represent in the following sentences?

  1. I can only dream of becoming someone like Dr. Stone.

  2. I can only do this for so long.

Is it possible that 'only' here is negating the meaning somehow, in order to mean something like:

  1. It is only possible for me to become someone like Dr. Stone in a "dream", but never in real life.
  2. I can't carry on doing this for very long.
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  • By represent, do you mean part of speech?
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 15:05
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    The adverb "only" is a focusing modifier. In 1. it modifies the VP "dream of becoming someone like Dr. Stone", and in 2. it modifies the VP "do this for so long".
    – BillJ
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 15:22
  • It doesn't represent anything. It's not referential; it's a quantifier, with a focus, as @Billj said. Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 15:29
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    I know what you mean. "Only" isn't negative, but it is semantically close to a negative in that "Only John liked it", for example, entails "No one other than John liked it". I think your interpretations are acceptable too.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 15:47
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    That's the ambiguity of the focus. Only can appear modifying any constituent that contains its focussed element; here they are verb phrases with several possible foci. That would be clear in speech from the stress; but in writing you can't tell what word's stressed, so writers are advised to put only right before its focus if they want to avoid ambiguity. Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 15:48

3 Answers 3

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In comments, BillJ wrote:

The adverb "only" is a focusing modifier. In 1. it modifies the VP "dream of becoming someone like Dr. Stone", and in 2. it modifies the VP "do this for so long".

I know what you mean. "Only" isn't negative, but it is semantically close to a negative in that "Only John liked it", for example, entails "No one other than John liked it". I think your interpretations are acceptable too.

In comments, John Lawler wrote:

It doesn't represent anything. It's not referential; it's a quantifier, with a focus, as @Billj said.

That's the ambiguity of the focus. Only can appear modifying any constituent that contains its focussed element; here they are verb phrases with several possible foci. That would be clear in speech from the stress; but in writing you can't tell what word's stressed, so writers are advised to put only right before its focus if they want to avoid ambiguity.

Only is a negative trigger, though a weak one. It also involves presupposition and quantification, so it's a regular mare's nest. Larry Horn wrote the classic analysis paper around 50 years ago.

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  • I assume the learned contributors use 'comments' because they feel that the issues have been covered here before, though they also feel that finding the most fitting 'duplicate' would be too time-consuming. Promoting to a community wiki fits with not 'rewarding' the many answers to duplicates we get (though I doubt these gentlemen are in it for the money) and discourages such practice, while preserving good answers ... though it does hinder searchability. And transfer workload to other redoubtable contributors. Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 16:42
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In these two cases, I believe 'only' is indicating that while multiple outcomes are imaginable, not all are possible.

  1. Here the outcomes are a) "you can dream about becoming like Dr. Stone", and b) "you can take action to actually become like Dr. Stone". You will never go beyond thinking about the situation, to making it happen. You are limited to option a.

  2. In the second case, I believe the sentence could be reordered to read "I can do this only for so long." In this case the two choices are a) a limited time, and b) forever. You can do only a, not b.

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Only represent in following sentence that there is just one or very few of something, or that there are no others. eg. Dr. Stone, I

I can only dream of becoming someone like Dr. Stone.

I can only do this for so long.

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    The first sentence doesn't mean that there is just one or no others, it's saying that I am not able to become like Dr Stone - some other people may be able to become like Dr Stone.
    – nnnnnn
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 2:22

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