On CNN today:

It deprives Trump, who has no foreign policy experience and a barely formed national security team...

Furthermore, any specific case that one should use barely instead of only and vice versa?

4 Answers 4


Barely means "hardly at all" or "scarcely", while only means "exclusively", or "singularly". In terms of their definitions, the two words are no more interchangeable than the words "some" or "none".

Also, "only formed" is not an adjective phrase you would use in English. However, you may have seen something like "His team was only formed very recently." In that case only is being used for emphasis. Similarly, you might hear something like "only a little bit" which is similar in meaning to "barely at all". Again, only is being used for emphasis. That's about as close as you'd get to seeing these words used interchangeably.


The word barely is not synonymous with only in this context. A better synonym, I think, would be newly:

It deprives Trump, who has no foreign policy experience and a newly-formed national security team...

The word barely in this news article is emphasizing that Trump's national security team was only recently assembled and therefore they are relatively inexperienced working in their current roles.

This interpretation aligns with this Macmillan definition:

barely (adv.) used for emphasizing that something happened only a very short time before something else

  • Took the words right out of my mouth. Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 11:55
  • newly removes much of the meaning of barely. If something is "barely formed", it is almost inchoate. There is more to barely than mere recency.
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 12:44
  • @TRomano - No argument from me. Well said.
    – J.R.
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 15:40

The word only cannot modify modifiers which are formed from the past participle of the verb.

The food platter was only touched. ungrammatical, without further context that might show an ellipsis

The food platter was barely touched. Little of the food had been eaten.

If only appears next to a past participle, it modifies the predicate, not the predicate adjective:

The car was only scratched, not dented.

barely modifies modifiers which express the idea of state or condition.

If something is barely legible, it is very difficult to read because it is almost illegible. You can make out the words on the page but only with considerable difficulty.

If something is barely audible, it is something you must strain to hear. It is so quiet that you might not hear it if you were not listening for it.

When only modifies an adverbial modifier, the modified word expresses time.

The team was formed only recently.

barely formed, because of the meaning of formed, does not express mere recency. It expresses the idea of a marginal degree of formedness. The state of being formed has been only marginally attained. The team has not really fully taken shape. It is still in the process of taking shape, coming together, not yet acting fully as a team. The team is just a little better organized than disorganized.


Please note the subtle difference in the two meanings of barely.

For one, it is

used for emphasizing that something happened only a very short time before something else.

This meaning is quite close to your interpretation of 'only formed'.

In another sense, 'barely' is also

used for saying that something almost does not happen or exist, or is almost not possible.

This meaning is more synonymous with words like 'scarcely', 'hardly' and so on.

So, depending on which meaning of 'barely' fits your context more appropriately, you can pick and choose. If it's is the first one, you may (again, be cautious with your context) use it interchangeably with 'only'.

  • Your answer is not very clear. For the "short time ago" meaning, it would be only recently formed or formed only recently or formed only a week ago, where only would modify the time phrase, not the past participle of the verb.
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 12:43

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