The site 'thefreedictionary.com' includes the word 'only' in the group of negative adverbs with hardly, scarcely, barely, seldom, etc. and specially categorizes it as an adverb creating 'conditional negativity'.

Example sentences:

  1. I will only go to the movie if you go too. (Meaning: I am not going to the movie if you don’t go.)

  2. I’ll only help you when you ask for it. (Meaning: I will not help you when you don’t ask for help.)

'Only' also requires an inverted word order when it comes at the beginning of the clause, just like the other negative adverbs.

3.Only if you go too will I go to the movie.

  1. Only when you ask for help will I help you.

Sentences 3 and 4 show that 'only' acts exactly as a negative word.

My questions are:

  1. Should a sentence containing 'only' be treated as a negative sentence?

  2. Which is the correct Tag Question to the following sentence?

We will only attend the function if we get an official invitation,.....?

will we? / won't we? / No Tag Question possible

  • 1
    "I only have eyes for you" sounds pretty positive to me...
    – nnnnnn
    Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 5:40
  • To answer your comment 8 Aug below about the sentence "Only the Washington Post reported the story,.....?, the tag should be the negative "didn't it?" As I explained to you, "only" is not negative, so the tag should, of course, be negative.
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 6:36
  • Related.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 21, 2023 at 17:40

2 Answers 2


No: "Only" is not 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".

We will only attend the function if we get an official invitation.

Your example above requires the negative tag "won't we?", thus proving that the clause it is attached to is a positive one.

  1. Only if you go too will I go to the movie.

  2. Only when you ask for help will I help you.

  1. and 4. have subject-auxiliary inversion. This occurs in declarative clauses only when certain types of element are put in front position. Negatives are one very obvious type of element that trigger subject-auxiliary inversion when fronted:

Never had I seen such chaos.

At no stage were they in danger.

The inversion is also found with some items that are not similar to negatives:

John enjoyed it and so did Robert.

  • "The inversion is also found with some items that are not similar to negatives" - an insightful point. Thank you. Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 6:23

Yes, it certainly is negative, though whether it's to be called an adverb or not depends on what the options are. As Larry Horn pointed out long ago, only asserts an affirmative proposition, but presupposes a negative one. For instance, the sentence

  • Only [the Washington Post reported the story].

asserts that [the Washington Post reported the story],
but presupposes that no other newspaper did so.

Consequently, since the only is what adds the negative presupposition -- the assertion is already there in the sentence -- only is normally considered to be a Negative Trigger, since it licenses NPIs like ever.

However, only is not as strong a negator as not or never, since the negative is presupposed, and not asserted. Therefore certain NPIs may not be licensed by only, as this homework problem demonstrates.

  • Only children ever go there.
  • *Children ever go there
  • Semantically close to a negative, but not syntactically negative, as the negative tag proves.
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 5:40
  • It's also a negative, as the triggered NPIs show. If you want to be precise, note that tags refer to assertions, not their presuppositions. Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 16:03
  • Nevertheless, the answer to the OP's question about whether sentences containing 'only' should be treated as negative must surely be no. The tag is a good test for the polarity of a sentence. I would not treat "only" as syntactically negative.
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 6:22
  • Only the Washington Post reported the story,.....? Which tag question should be added here - did it? or didn't it? Which aspect is given prominence - affirmative assertion or negative presupposition? Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 9:54

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