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Why is only an adverb instead of an adjective in the following sentences?

  • Only Sue and Mark bothered to turn up for the meeting.
  • Only an idiot would do that.

Source: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english-chinese-traditional/only

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    Do not answer in comments. Write an answer: that's how Stack Exchange works. If you want to migrate this question elsewhere, vote to do that. I've deleted the two conflicting comments.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 1, 2022 at 10:23
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    Does this answer your question? Does it matter where you put “only”? There are other threads also dealing with 'only'. Personally, I see it as so far from being either an adjective or an adverb that I prefer the class 'limiting modifiers / focus particles'. Jan 1, 2022 at 11:19
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    See also Do adverbs only 'describe' verbs?. Focusing modifiers aren't mentioned specifically, but the arguable inappropriateness of the 'adverb dustbin class' is discussed. Jan 1, 2022 at 12:25
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    I'm voting to re-open the question. It does not ask about the position of "only" in a clause, but asks why "only" is an adverb, not an adjective, in the examples cited.
    – BillJ
    Jan 1, 2022 at 14:26
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    The distinction between the focusing adverb "only" and the adjective "only" is a tricky one, and well worth discussing on ELU.
    – BillJ
    Jan 1, 2022 at 14:48

2 Answers 2

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[1] [Only Sue and Mark] bothered to turn up for the meeting.

[2] [Only an idiot] would do that.

In both examples, "only" is an adverb functioning as a focusing modifier in the bracketed noun phrases.

Focusing adverbs modify a wide range of constructions, including noun phrases, but they do not modify nouns or nominals, as opposed to noun phrases.

[3] I don't eat meat, but [only fish].

Here, fish is an NP consisting of just a noun. You could have [4] but not [5]

[4] I eat meat, but [only this kind of fish].

[5] * I eat meat but this [only kind of fish].

In [5] "kind of fish" is a nominal and hence the sentence is ungrammatical.

However, in an appropriate construction "only" can modify a nominal, in which case it is not an adverb but an adjective, as in [6]

[6] My [only reservation] is the cost.

where "only" modifies the nominal "reservation".

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  • Thanks for your answer. I'm a little confused when you say "focusing adverbs modify a wide range of constructions, including noun phrases, but they do not modify nouns or nominals, as opposed to noun phrases." Doesn't "only" modify the noun "fish" in [3]? Like you said, a noun phrase can consist of just a noun, and so they are not distinct categories?
    – Ana
    Jan 3, 2022 at 4:37
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    @Ana NP and nominal are distinct categories. A nominal is the unit intermediate between the NP and the noun -- it's the noun phrase minus the determiner. "Fish" in [3] is not a nominal but an NP, whereas "reservation" is a nominal in [6], so "only" is an adjective, not a focusing adverb.
    – BillJ
    Jan 3, 2022 at 14:39
  • I always thought of them as overlapping categories, but now I see what you mean. Thank you very much for your explanation!
    – Ana
    Jan 4, 2022 at 3:50
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Only Sue and Mark bothered to turn up for the meeting.

Here, we can replace "only" with merely, solely, exclusively - You will note all are adverbs: we cannot use mere, sole, exclusive.

Only fronts the whole main clause as a free modifier. The same applies to the second.

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  • Thank you very much for your answer!
    – Ana
    Jan 3, 2022 at 5:07

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