What is correct?

  • He should be only present in the first group.

  • He only should be present in the first group.

  • He should only be present in the first group. (this one is my favourite, but I don't know why)


  • 2
    #1 is not really idiomatic, unless you were making some distinction between "being present" and "leading" the group, for example. #2 does not make good sense, since a group needs more than one person in it. Your listener would have to intuit your real meaning. They probably would. #3 is OK, but for greater clarity you could say "... be present only in the first group".
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 12:54
  • How about attend instead of be present?
    – WRX
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 16:35
  • It sure would be nice to combine the many multiple "only" questions into a canonical Q&A, and close all but the canonical one as duplicates...
    – shoover
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 22:56
  • #2 I think sounds like you're saying he should be present in the first group and no others, and that others can be in multiple groups (emphasising the 'he')
    – Erin
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 1:45

1 Answer 1


In this case, the focus of "only" is on where he should be (answer: in the first group), so "only" needs to be in the predicate (the part of the sentence with the verb and the prepositional phrase).

There are 3 acceptable ways to place the only in the predicate in standard English, as used in the US, UK, Canada, etc.:

He should only be present in the first group.

^ this would probably the most commonly used expression in spoken English (it is also common in written English)


He should be present only in the first group.


He should be present in only the first group.

^ some grammarians would probably argue that these latter two expressions would be preferable because the focus is on the place (the where) rather than on the verb action (the being present), and, according to this argument, the modifying adverb (only) should be closest to the part of speech it is modifying.


However, in my experience, most native English speakers probably would not worry about this (or even be aware of the argument).

He should be only present in the first group. <--- This cannot be used here because if "only" is going to be placed anywhere between the parts of the verb, it should be placed only after the first auxiliary verb ("should" in this case, in which I am defining the infinitive of the whole verb as "to be present" and "should" as the first auxiliary verb). That's why "He should only be present" is permissible but "He should be only present" never is.

If the focus is on another part of the sentence than the subject, we usually put only in the normal mid position for adverbs (between the subject and the main verb, or after the modal verb or first auxiliary verb, or after be as a main verb):

She had only arrived at midnight the night before. (after the first auxiliary verb)


Note: In some regions of the world, such as in India, placement of "only" may not necessarily follow these particular rules.


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