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I wonder which one is correct:

  • three only apples
  • only three apples

If "only three apples" is correct, which does "only" modify? Does it modify "three" or "three apples"? Why?

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Although the combination "three only" can be grammatical, "three only apples" is ungrammatical.

Here it is not clear whether "only" refers to "three" or "three apples"; the context can reveal the intended meaning.

The meaning could be that "there are not any more apples than three":

How many apples are left?

Only three apples!

Or the meaning could be "the only objects present are three apples":

What fruits do you see on the table?

Only three apples.

In the first example, the number is important. In the second example, it is just an observation that there is no other fruit on the table besides three apples; there is no idea of regret that there aren't four or five apples. The speaker could just have answered "Only apples." but chose to volunteer the extra information that there are three.

If we want the second meaning without ambiguity, we cannot achieve it by moving the word "only" between "three" and "apples". Only context makes it clear, or a change of wording which avoids "only":

no more than three apples

nothing else but three apples

When "only" function as a quantifier, it is not compatible with another quanitifier, so "three only apples" is either ungrammatical, or requires us to regard "only" as an adjective: that there are three apples, and they are of the type "only apple". This is semantic nonsense: "an only apple" isn't a concept. However, "an only child" is a concept. So it is conceivable to have "three only children": For instance:

The psychologist interviewed three only children.

But note that this does not mean that the psychologist interviewed no more than three children, and it does not mean that the psychologist interviewed no other people except three children! Here, the word only identifies a type of child, and does not serve as a quantifying or limiting type of word which would be incompatible with "three". It means that the psychologist interviewed three children who have no siblings.

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  • Why "three only apples" is ungrammatical? "only" is an adjective, which modifies "apples". I means the construction of this phrase is similar to "the only child". So why is it ungrammatical? – user48070 Nov 7 '13 at 3:49
  • @user48070 Figuring out anything is ungrammatical is the business of linguists. Linguists interview native speakers. Native speakers tell them what they feel is correct and what isn't. Linguists then form hypotheses about how it works, using various theories of grammar. There is a Linguistics Stackexchange. Probably what is going on here is that "only" is a kind of quantifier, as is "three", and in that position it somehow conflicts with three. – Kaz Nov 7 '13 at 4:22
  • "three only children" might be acceptable to native speakers if it is very clear that it refers to three people, each of whom is an only child. Without the proper context, it does not sound good. E.g. "At a convention for people with no siblings, I met three only children." I feel the urge to hyphenate that to "three only-children". Here, the word only functions as an adjective, and it only makes sense because someone can be "an only child". "only child" is almost a canned phrase. There is no "an only apple" as a similar concept. – Kaz Nov 7 '13 at 4:27
  • A noun phrase should be :Predeterminer+ Central Determiner + Postdeterminer + adjective + noun. In this formula , some of the determiner can be omitted. I think "only" is an adjective, and "three" is a kind of quantifier , which should be places in the postdeterminer position, so there is no conflict between them. – user48070 Nov 7 '13 at 4:31

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