As you know, Adverbs can modify Adjectives, Verbs and other Adverbs; however, focusing adverbs seem to show different characteristics regarding it.

Focusing Adverbs vary according to their placement and can modify Nouns, Noun Phrases, Verbal Phrases..

So, my question is: Are focusing adverbs exceptions for such a rule?

Examples of focusing adverbs modifying different parts of the speech:

Only I like my cat - Noun.

I only like my cat - Verb.

I like only her - Noun.

I like her only - Entire Clause.

  • What kind of characteristics do you mean?
    – Peter
    May 7, 2017 at 2:53
  • @Andrew - You are correct, and I completely got your point; however, would you have any explanation for such a sentence: "He is exactly what I wanted to be." I have received a few answers regarding this topic, such as: Adverbs can also modify Phrases, which include: NP, PP, To-Infinitive Phrases and Gerund Phrases, and that's more likely to be true since some adverbs do seem to modify a whole phrase or entire sentence, which is the case of: "Personally, I like her." or "I am exactly like her".
    – Davyd
    May 8, 2017 at 1:59
  • @Prodigy this is a very good question. Please ask it separately. May 10, 2017 at 10:22

3 Answers 3


In your first example, I believe "only" plays the role of an adjective, not an adverb! It tells us more about the subject, "I".

  • That's a fairly good explanation. I have heard that before.
    – Davyd
    May 8, 2017 at 23:18
  • 1
    @Prodigy and Pal, this is completely wrong. In OP's first sentence, only can never be an adjective. It's still an adverb there. May 9, 2017 at 11:31
  • @Man_From_India - Check this article from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_determiners#Zero_determiner It says that adverbs CAN modify Phrases, and in some theories, a single noun can be regarded as a Noun Phrase as long as they are: In plural forms: Men[NP] are good, Only is an adjective and has been proved by many famous dictionaries; however, in such cases as: Only man is good -In that case, "Only" is acting as an adjective, in this case: Only men are good, "Only" is acting adverbialy, why? Because "Men" is considered to be a Noun Phrase, and adverbs modify Phrases.
    – Davyd
    May 9, 2017 at 19:37
  • @Prodigy I haven't read the article yet. But yes an AdvP can modify other phrases, DP is one of them. Though that's irrelevant here. A single noun can of course be a NP, but in that case an adverb can never modify that NP. Moreover a pronoun never licenses an adjective as pre-head modifier (it however does for selected cases). Even in Only Kim has resigned, we will call that only an adverb, a focusing adverb. May 10, 2017 at 0:21
  • @Prodigy only can sometimes be an adjective, but not in this case. In your example sentence - only men are good - the stress is on men and good. The focus of only is men. And only here is nothing but an adverb, and it doesn't modify the Noun - men. May 10, 2017 at 0:26

According the the Merriam Webster site, only can be an adjective...

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or an adverb...

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depending on the word modified. That means that the classification is going to depend on what the sentence means. I believe that in your examples, the sense of the sentence changes as the word "only" floats through from place to place. We would have to judge what each sentence means in order to decide the role of the word "only."


  • Only I like my cat.

  • I like only her.

The word is an adjective meaning only I (nobody else), or only her (nobody else).


  • I like her only.

  • I only like my cat.

Does the first mean that I like her (but only like, not love, an adverbial sense), or that I like her (but only her, not him, an adjectival sense)? Does the second mean that I like the cat (but only like, an adverbial sense), or that I like the cat (but nobody or nothing else, an adjectival sense)?

I'm not sure I see any consequence to classifying the word "only" as an adjective or otherwise, but I think that's a fairly good analysis.

P.S. Merriam-Webster uses the words "only one left" to illustrate the adjectival use, and "lost only one" to illustrate the adverbial use. I don't see how they're looking at it. Maybe they understand Orwell to mean, absurdly, that he only lost one, he did not tie it or win it. It seems more natural to me to think that Orwell meant that he lost only one, not more than one; that would lead me to classify the example as adjectival, despite the word order.

  • 1
    @Prodigy Well the word "only" was in the question. I guess that in other examples some word might modify phrases or clauses. I'm not sure what the word "personally" adds to the sense of the first example, so it's hard to classify. "I look exactly like her" means not not just a little like her but exactly, so it's modifying the adjective "like," isn't it? And "approximately" seems the mirror of "exactly": not exactly thirty people, but approximately.
    – Chaim
    May 9, 2017 at 12:47
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    @Prodigy In I look exactly like her, the adverb - exactly - modifies the following Preposition Phrase - like her. The sentence - There were approximately third people in the party - doesn't sound right to me. Well, replace third with any other determinative, for example - hundred, and it would be correct. In that case the adverb is modifying the Determinative. May 10, 2017 at 10:27
  • 1
    @Prodigy Well the first time you said "third," I assumed it was a typo for "three," and corrected (?) it to "three." I don't know what it would mean to say "There were approximately third people in the party," or what it would mean if we dropped the word "approximately." So I think that an incoherent expression might be impossible to diagram. But on reflection I think that "Personally" at the front of a sentence can mean to acknowledge the legitimacy of differing opinion; it means something like "While this is only my opinion," and seems to modify the entire sentence. Agreed on "exactly like."
    – Chaim
    May 10, 2017 at 11:58
  • 1
    @Man_From_India See previous comment, which I accidentally addressed to someone else.
    – Chaim
    May 10, 2017 at 12:04
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    @Chaim You are correct in your comment, but not in your answer :-) (MW is right on their analysis that only in the only one left is an adjective and the only in he only lost one election is an adverb. But the meaning of the second sentence is ambiguous.) May 10, 2017 at 15:25

Apart from Pre-Head and Post-Head modifiers there are some External Modifiers that a Personal Pronoun can take. One such modifiers are Focusing Modifiers (realized by adverbs like alone, only, also etc.)

The syntactic constituent that the modifier -only - modifies is the Personal Pronoun - I or her.

[Only I] liked her.

I liked [only her].

I liked [her only].

These examples are quite different from the sentence below in that the modifier - only - syntactically modifies the whole clause.

There is only silence. [only modifies there is silence]

In the following sentence only modifies the whole Verb Phrase (VP).

I [only like her]. [only modifies the VP - like her]

This is how Modern Grammars treat Focusing Modifiers.

It is to be noted here that there can have multiple focus element for a single Focusing Modifier. And hence the meaning might change. The focusing element can either occur inside the constituent that the the modifier syntactically modifies or can occur outside the constituent.

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