I was just wondering if there is a significant difference between placing "only" before and after the word "been".


I've only been fixing cars since I was young.


I've been only fixing cars since I was young.

What I wish to convey is that something has consumed someone so much that they haven't done anything else noteworthy in their life. Because "only" qualifies the object after it, I believe the latter is correct, but determining whether or not "been" affects its placement has proven difficult.

Thank you.

  • Despite all the comments about the correct positioning of "only" in the above possible duplicate, there's no satisfactory answer to your question there. Some people are red/green colorblind & will tell you that red & green 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") because they know what they mean when they say what they say, but listeners & readers often have to guess.
    – user21497
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 11:00
  • 1
    In some regions, only with a verb can be used for emphasis, especially in giving a counter fact. E.g. The salesman tried to give me the little-lady routine, and I've only been fixing cars since I was young offers the speakers experience with cars as a reason why the salesman's approach was inappropriate.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 11:26

3 Answers 3


If you wanted to emphasise the exclusivity of the activity to all else, then you’d be better off writing it more explicitly, perhaps as All I’ve ever done since I was young is fix cars. For discussion of the placing of only more generally, see here Correct position of "only", as well as RegDwight's link.


It's an odd sentence without wider context to give it meaning, but all else being equal, "only" emphasises the following word(s).

Again, your example is odd: "I've only been doing …" is normally followed by "… for/since [a short time (ago)]" to emphasise how new you are to the activity, so the "since I was young" is odd with that construction unless meant ironically (i.e, "I'm an expert").

"I've been only fixing …" implies fixing only and nothing else, e.g. not building or painting, just fixing.

  • Yes, the first example works ironically in the context of, say, two speakers, one of whom has asked the other, "Are you sure you know how to repair my car?" The word "only" does emphasize how long the car expert has been doing his thing, but it also adds a hint of understatement, which in effect underscores his expertise. Commented Jan 12, 2013 at 18:03

"I have only fixed cars since I was young" or "I have only been fixing cars since I was young". The structures are what is called "skunked" because they neither say what they mean nor mean what they say. Most native speakers don't care where they put only in a sentence and falsely believe that context will always disambiguate what has become inherently ambiguous because of sloppy speech and writing.

It therefore behooves anyone who wants to speak and write clearly to avoid these unclear, ambiguous structures. Say, instead, something like this:

All I've done since I was young is fix cars
All I've been doing since I was young is fixing cars

  • It seemed to me that I have only been fixing cars since I was young makes it look like as if he has only been fixing cars since he was young and not any time before that....is it so? Is it a second meaning which could be derived out of it?
    – Mohit
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 10:45
  • 1
    For me (missing context) it sounds to me it is an answer to "Do you even know how to fix a car" where the answer is "As if I didn't know - I've only been fixing cars since I was your, so there!"
    – mplungjan
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 10:57
  • @Mohit: I pointed out that both sentences are ambiguous as far as I'm concerned. I agree with Barrie's answer that the sentence needs to be expressed more explicitly. John Lawler answered a similar question almost 1 year ago. That answer doesn't satisfy me -- it doesn't have to, of course -- so I don't use only unless its placement causes no ambiguity whatsoever. If there's any chance of ambiguity, I rewrite the sentence to ensure clarity.
    – user21497
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 11:00
  • @Mohit: before he was young he wasn't even born, so he can't have been fixing cars, so in this case the second meaning can be ruled out. But e.g. ...since I was 25 does introduce the possibility of a second meaning, and would need to be rephrased.
    – DavidR
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 15:24
  • Who calls such sentences “skunked”? I can't find any definition of the word online or in the dictionaries I have to hand that accords with your answer, let alone makes it look like a term used for describing semantic imprecision. Can you provide a link? Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 17:22

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