Which is grammatically correct?

I can only do so much in this time.


I can do only so much in this time.


6 Answers 6


In the given example there's not much difference. But there can be a great deal of difference in other constructions involving the same idea. Consider:

I only eat fish when I'm sick.

I eat fish only when I'm sick.

I eat only fish when I'm sick.

I submit that the first sentence is a bit ambiguous, and could be clarified in the direction of the second or third. Two and three mean entirely different things.

NOTE: In spoken English it is relatively easy to make the first sentence unambiguous by use of a vocal stress on the part you wish to indicate belongs with only.

I only eat fish when I'm sick. (I eat only fish when I'm sick.)
I only eat fish when I'm sick. (I eat fish only when I'm sick.)
I only eat fish when I'm sick. (I eat fish only when I'm sick.)

Certainly you can do the same thing in writing or typing via underlining or italicization, but sentence structure is perhaps a simpler way to draw the distinction, requiring no additional adjustments.

  • 2
    Well exemplified :) Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 15:29
  • 3
    It's worth noting that the ambiguity in the first sentence is essentially an inadequacy in the writing system. In their spoken form, intonation disambiguates readings of the first sentence and brings at least two different readings to the second. Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 16:17
  • 1
    My general take is that placing only immediately before the verb is quite often the very worst possible place for it. I always rearrange if possible to make the sentence stronger.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 11:43
  • 2
    @tchrist: Milton was able to manage the feat quite handily in "On His Blindness" when he wrote, "They also serve who only stand and wait." I think the issue is placement of only as close as possible to the word that draws the distinction, be it verb, noun, preposition, or whatever.
    – Robusto
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 12:00
  • 1
    I think this is a credible conversation: "You must eat to get better! I'll get you some fish and chips". "Okay, but forget the chips. I eat fish only when I'm sick". But then again it's entirely credible with exactly the same meaning using I eat only fish.... In short, with this specific combination of subject + verb + object + temporal modifier, there's scope for ambiguity with any of those 3 positions. There's even ambiguity if you put only at the start (of an utterance, but probably not of a conversation), since it might mean something akin to Oh! - and by the way. Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 17:41

They are both grammatically correct, and both mean the same thing.

(However, "in this time" doesn't sound quite right in this context. "In the time available" might be better).

  • Like with english.stackexchange.com/questions/5464/… I think the difference, to the extent that it exists at all, is one of emphasis.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Nov 23, 2010 at 20:32
  • 2
    I agree that these sentences here both mean the same thing, but want to add that this can't be generalized to any adverb next to a verb. Sometimes, it will make a difference which side of the verb the adverb is on.
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Nov 23, 2010 at 20:34
  • I'm not sure I understand the downvote for this. For the question that was actually asked, this answer is 100% correct. It's irrelevant that there might exist a question for which this is the wrong answer.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Nov 23, 2010 at 21:30
  • They're both grammatically correct, but they don't necessarily mean the same thing. ?"I can just do so much in this time" versus "I can do just so much in this time": I think the first is questionable & the second means the same thing as "I can do only so much in this time". Some people are red/green colorblind & will tell you that they look the same; some are tone-deaf ("relatively insensitive to differences in musical pitch") & can't tell the difference between two different notes; & most native English speakers are semantically challenged & indiscriminate (cf. "fewer" vs. "less").
    – user21497
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 10:50
  1. "Only I eat fish when I'm sick" means "Only I, and nobody else, eat fish when I'm sick". In this case, only is an adjective, qualifying the pronoun which directly follows it, I.

  2. "I only eat fish when I'm sick" means "I only eat fish when I'm sick. That is the only thing I do with fish when I'm sick". In this case, only is an adverb, qualifying the verb which directly follows it, eat.

  3. "I eat only fish when I'm sick" means "I eat only fish when I'm sick; I eat nothing else beside fish". In this case, only is an adjective, qualifying the noun which directly follows it, fish.

  4. "I eat fish only when I'm sick" means "I eat fish only when I'm sick; when I am not sick, I do not eat fish." In this case, only is an adverb, qualifying the adverbial clause which directly follows it.

  • 5
    "I only eat fish when I'm sick" would be more likely to be understood as "I don't eat fish except when I'm sick", or perhaps "When I'm sick, I eat nothing but fish". In order to ensure that the meaning was "The only thing I do to fish is eat then", extra emphasis would have to be placed on "eat" in pronunciation.
    – psmears
    Commented Jan 14, 2011 at 15:51
  • I eat fish when only I'm sick. Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 15:30
  • 1
    You've got the adverb/adjective dichotomy wrong. In all four of your sentences, only is an adverb.
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Oct 7, 2013 at 6:28
  • Talia Ford, I think Webster's would disagree with you: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/only. It seems to me that definition 1, sense 2a, would apply to both 1 and 3. Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 21:52

Robusto's answer provides an accurate, commonsense illustration of how the positioning of only in a sentence can significantly influence the sense of the sentence. The followup answer from systemovich offers what one might call the "strict constructionist" (or "machine-applied") interpretation of sentences that include the word only.

In a similar vein, Theodore Bernstein, The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage (1973) lays out a "normal" practical rule for deciding where to situate only in a sentence:


Normally the proper positioning of only requires no more than asking yourself, "What does it actually modify?" Thus a headline that says, "$35,000 Bond Thief Only Nets Paper," does not conform to the normal order; the only patently modifies "paper," not "nets," and so should adjoin it. An interesting exercise for developing only awareness was cited in the publication Word Study, distributed by G. $ C. Merriam Company, as follows: "Eight different meanings result from placing only in the eight possible positions in this sentence: 'I hit him in the eye yesterday.'" Try it.

However, to his credit, Bernstein goes on to note two important exceptions to the mechanistic assignment of only within a sentence:

The words "normal" and "normally" have been prominent in the foregoing paragraphs. They are intended to underline the fact that there are abnormal but proper placements for only. One abnormal placement is dictated by idiom, meaning that a normal placement would sound awkward and contrived. Example: "What is happening now can only be called a paperback-book explosion." The normal position for only here would be just ahead of "a paperback-book explosion," which is the phrase it modifies. But placed there, it sounds pedantic and unnatural.

Another "abnormal" placement, which is not really abnormal but only seems so, occurs when the only is a sentence adverb, that is, when it modifies an entire statement rather than a word or phrase. Example: "He only thought that he was being helpful." The only here is not intended to modify merely "thought," as would be the case if "thought" were heavily stressed. Nor is the meaning that his mental process was confined to a single idea, as would be implied if the only followed "thought." Rather the intention is to apply only to the entire sentence, and a sentence adverb of this kind usually precedes the verb.

Some combination of idiomatic usage and what Bernstein calls "sentence adverb" usage may well be at work in the expression "I can only do so much." An Ngram chart of "can only do so much" (blue line) versus "can do only so much" (red line) for the period 1850–2005 shows a rather remarkable increase in the frequency of the first expression since about 1970, a period during which the frequency of the second expression has increased only slightly:

Evidently, either there has been a startling increase in the frequency of instances where writers are trying to indicate that "they can only do so much" (as opposed to, say, promising so much) or the wording "can only do so much" has come into its own as a set phrase meaning "cannot do more than a certain unspecified maximum amount." The latter explanation is much more plausible than the former, in my view.


The latter is probably what you mean to say.

I can eat only so much in one sitting.

This means just what you think: In one sitting, you're only able to eat until you're full.

I can only eat so much in one sitting.

This implies that in this situation, you can only eat, as if you're compelled to do so. This is usually not what someone intends.

  • 3
    No, the second example doesn't imply that - it can equally (probably even more likely) mean the same as the first example.
    – psmears
    Commented Jan 14, 2011 at 15:53

Robusto, et al, should be correct but "only" is a rather unusual word, in that context and idiomatic misuse normally overrule all else.

"in this time" and even the specific "do so much" blur the issue and generally, "I can only do…" should really be "I can do only…"

Consider instead "Only operate this machinery when sober".

Grammar suggests that should mean "Do nothing but operate this machinery…"

Context restores the sense of "Operate this machinery only when sober"

  • 1
    'Idiomatic misuse' is a contradiction in terms. Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 17:44
  • Thanks Edwin and while I see what you mean, it clearly isn't. Quite apart from "only", plenty of instances such as "ain't never/no/none" should be outlawed for breaking this, that or the other rule but are accepted on the sole ground of idiom. Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 1:22
  • I admit I find the increasing encroachment of practices from non-native speakers on what is usually called 'standard English' at times undesirable. But "I only eat fish when I'm sick" for "I eat only fish ..." is, I'd say, more commonly found. Few people would pick up people using this usage. Rules in English are arbitrary (they weren't given by fiat), almost always have to be conceded to have exceptions, and change over time. There's a temptation to think that what we were taught is the rule and other conventions are wrong. When 50 years earlier, the 'rule' had been changed. Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 15:51
  • Edwin, your fish are wholly right and fish aren't a great example. "I only eat fish when…" and "I eat only fish when…" are both correct. "I drive only Edzel cars…" clearly deals with the cars I drive. "I only drive Edzel cars…" will normally be interpreted as referring to cars in exactly the same way, but that's about context and idiom. If we relied solely on grammar, "I only drive…" would leave me not getting out of bed, eating breakfast, or breathing… however unreasonable. Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 19:25
  • But language, as has often been asserted and supported by argument on ELU, is primarily verbal rather than written. "I only drive Edzel cars …" and "I only drive Edzel cars …" (and "I only drive Edzel cars ...") contain inner cues (stress, here shown by italicisation) to three different readings. The same string is commonly used (for a general sentence) in different ways. Totally acceptable. Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 20:03