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What is the difference between the following sentences? Basically, I would like to understand how the meaning changes with the usage of only in each of them.

  1. He only speaks English.
  2. He speaks only English.
  3. He speaks English only.
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Only the trees were somewhat damaged by last year's storm.

Meaning: Nothing except the trees was somewhat damaged by last year's storm.

The only trees were somewhat damaged by last year's storm.

Meaning: The few trees which existed were somewhat damaged by last year's storm.

The trees were only somewhat damaged by last year's storm.

Meaning: The trees were not completely damaged by last year's storm.

The trees were somewhat damaged only by last year's storm.

Meaning: The trees were somewhat damaged by nothing except last year's storm.

The trees were somewhat damaged by last year's only storm.

Meaning: The trees were somewhat damaged by the one storm which occurred last year.

Source

  • Just on a point of site style: it would be more consistent to put the example sentences as quotes, and your explanation as regular text. – Steve Melnikoff Nov 25 '10 at 23:09
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    I'm not quite convinced by the second example; I've never seen only used to refer to more than one thing in that way. Perhaps 'the only tree was...'? – Brian Hooper Nov 25 '10 at 23:11
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    The second example is incorrect. For the given meaning, you'd have to say something like, "The only existing trees..." or "The only trees in that area...". – Steve Melnikoff Nov 25 '10 at 23:11
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    @Steve: I reformat the answer. Thank for reminding. – bman Nov 26 '10 at 6:54
  • Very descriptive answer! A stupid question: does the same logic apply to any other adverbs (obviously, apparently, solely etc)? – Elijah Saounkine Apr 7 '11 at 9:38
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To the point, your sentences 2 and 3 actually have exactly the same meaning. Although the scope of the quantifier "only" usually changes based on what follows it in the sentence, in the exceptional usage of sentence 3 it is modifying only the preceding word, "English".

He speaks only English. == He speaks English only.

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He only speaks English.

He does not read or write it. However, a listener may take this to mean the same as the next sentence.

He speaks only English.

He does not speak any other languages.

He speaks English only.

Same as above.

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