In an effort to clarify my quandary, is it appropriate to use this statement to give condolence:

I know you were only trying to help.

Or, does only imply that you did more harm than good? It feels like it does.

My confusion is that the statement,

I was only trying to help.

does not imply that I was only trying to help, but I admit that I caused harm.

  • 8
    “Nothing someone says before the word but really counts.” –Benjen Stark to Tyrion Lannister
    – tchrist
    Dec 10, 2012 at 22:08
  • The use of "only" (trying to help) implies that there was some outcome other than help. Dec 10, 2012 at 22:57
  • I'm only trying to answer this question, but it's not clear what you're asking. Dec 12, 2012 at 15:24
  • I edited, hopefully, for clarity. I'd really like it not to be closed because I think it is a usage question on the word "only".
    – tylerharms
    Dec 12, 2012 at 16:57
  • I but point out that OP's example is only one way of using these words. Dec 12, 2012 at 17:02

2 Answers 2


"I was only..." implies that the outcome went beyond, or differed from, the intent: "only trying to help," "only saying x and y," etc. The "but..." is implied because of that conditionality. The word "only" limits a statement to a specified context.

I think it goes a little further though: "but..." isn't inherently negative. The backhanded feel likely comes from the dissonance in the word "only." —"you were only trying to help" rarely means that the other party did more good than was intended. The word "only" reiterates and emphasizes the fact that the outcome differed from the intent or expectation.

  • I disagree with "but... isn't inherently negative". The negative implication is still there in, for example, "I ran to help but...", where we know before we read any further that the outcome will be negative. Except in (relatively uncommon) contexts where the default association is overridden, but always implies something negative. It just so happens that only is often used in negative contexts too. Dec 12, 2012 at 17:16
  • However, "I ran to help, but someone had gotten there first" is not—to me—inherently negative. "But..." is a reversal, though: "something good, something good, but something bad" or "something bad, something bad, but something good."
    – justin
    Dec 15, 2012 at 21:47
  • Or indeed, I ran to help, but he hadn't been hurt at all. By "negative", I just meant whatever follows "but" in such constructions will always negate or obviate the need for whatever comes before it. Dec 15, 2012 at 21:59

"Only" goes to motivation in those example sentences, not to outcome.

To say "I was only trying to help" can be restated as, "My intention was to help, not to cause (harm), (problems), (more work for you)"

That applies to the other example also: "I know you were only trying to help" means "I know your intention was to be helpful, not to cause (fill in the blank)"


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