“Well, Voldemort’s going to try other ways of coming back, isn’t he? I mean, he hasn’t gone, has he?” “No, Harry, he has not. He is still out there somewhere, perhaps looking for another body to share… not being truly alive, he cannot be killed. He left Quirrell to die; he shows just as little mercy to his followers as his enemies. Nevertheless, Harry, while you may only have delayed his return to power, it will merely take someone else who is prepared to fight what seems a losing battle next time — and if he is delayed again, and again, why, he may never return to power.”

(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

Sorry I wanted to write a more specific title but I'm having difficulty with the whole sentence so.. I read the question alreday asked here, but I still don't get it. And my question is more about what this sentence means, not how it grammarly works.

To me, 'take [someone] what seems like a losing battle' seems [someone] is losing the battle. (As in Many homebuyers will probably take what seems like the easy option without thinking through the long-term costs. Here, [homebuyers] take [what seems -]) But considering the context, it doesn't make sense at all.

I also don't get it why "merely=only" is used here. It will 'only' take someone else who can make Voldemort lose power..? If someone can fight against Voldemort, it truly is a courageous and big thing, not 'only' a thing.

I know I'm totally misunderstanding this sentence but that's just how I understood this.. which is total nonsense. Can anyone help me with this sentence?

  • 2
    Note that merely is a relatively dated/literary usage in this context. In normal conversation, most native speakers would usually say It'll only / just take X [to happen] for Y [to happen]. Jul 27, 2017 at 14:48
  • 11
    @FumbleFingers I disagree.. "merely" is used all the time by native speakers.
    – user30379
    Jul 27, 2017 at 14:54
  • 4
    @FumbleFingers That NGram shows nothing to support your argument. From that chart, the usage of "merely need" has been consistent throughout the years, whereas "just need" and "only need" have significantly risen. However, this by no means indicates that "only" and/or "just" have taken place of "merely". If that were so, you would see a drop in "merely" and a rise in "just" or "only" happening at the same time. "Merely" has a very specific usage, which is why its not used often, but has consistently been used the same way for at least the past seventy years, as can be seen from that chart.
    – user30379
    Jul 27, 2017 at 15:25
  • 3
    +1 @FumbleFingers Although I am not known as a worshipper at the Ngram shrine, in this case I think the oracle speaks true. This merely is a literary usage, not a current usage in the vernacular. And that is intentional—part of the appeal of this author's work is that it evokes an unspecified alternate time, and the use of mild archaisms supports her scheme (as do her syntactic tangles and ellipses). As for merely being used all the time by native speakers: not outside academia, I reckon. Only, or more likely just, will be heard on the bus. Jul 27, 2017 at 19:56
  • 3
    @P. E. Dant: Exactly. I continue to believe it's not in the interests of most learners using this site that comments like "merely" is used all the time by native speakers should get so many upvotes. Sure - practically all native speakers are familiar with the usage. But how many actually use it in conversational contexts today? Hardly any, I would suggest. It's natural enough coming from a well-spoken, elderly fictional headmaster in a relatively literary text, but any learner who starts using it like that in real conversations is likely to sound somewhat weird to the natives. Jul 28, 2017 at 13:31

5 Answers 5


As was pointed out on that other question you linked, this is a surprisingly tricky sentence!

Let's slowly build it up.

It will take someone else.

What is "it"? Stopping Voldemort again. Implied but never directly said. As for "take", we could say "need" instead, just to be slightly clearer.

[Stopping Voldemort again] will [need] someone else.

This isn't "someone else" as in "we need a different person", but as in "we need other people prepared to do what you did, Harry". When will they be needed? "Next time" (that is, the next time that Voldemort tries to return).

[Stopping Voldemort again] will [need] someone else who is prepared to [do the same as Harry] next time.

Now, Dumbledore is saying that this someone else doesn't have to do much. Hence, it will "merely" (or "only") take someone else. This may sound like it's demeaning Harry's efforts, but it's meant to be reassuring Harry: standing up to Voldemort is not very difficult or unlikely after all, and it doesn't take someone extra-special to do it.

[Stopping Voldemort again] will merely [need] someone else who is prepared to [do the same as Harry] next time.

What, exactly, did Harry do that Dumbledore says they need other people to do (or be prepared to do)? "Fight a losing battle"--or what seems like a losing battle. (Dumbledore omits the word "like", but I'll leave it in for this one example.)

[Stopping Voldemort again] will merely [need] someone else who is prepared to fight a losing battle next time.

[Stopping Voldemort again] will merely [need] someone else who is prepared to fight what seems [like] a losing battle next time.

And now we just replace the bracketed bits with the different wording Dumbledore uses, and we have the sentence (okay, part of a sentence) that you bolded.

It will merely take someone else who is prepared to fight what seems a losing battle next time.


We start by understanding that a losing battle is a phrase meaning 'a battle one is unlikely to win'. From that, what seems a losing battle can be paraphrased as 'a battle that seems to be difficult to win'. (Note that that part is one big noun phrase.) And so, 'someone who is prepared to fight what seems a losing battle' is someone who, despite thinking that they don't have much of a chance, is prepared to fight.

The merely is to contrast with the idea of someone immensely powerful defeating Voldemort completely - rather than needing someone like that, it would merely take...

  • I already know what the text means, so maybe I'm not the best judge of how easy it might be for someone who doesn't to gain a full understanding [merely? :] by reading this answer. But it certainly seems accurate, lucid, and concise (i.e. - well-focused, short, and to the point) to me. Jul 27, 2017 at 15:29
  • @FumbleFingers Thank you! Tim Pederick did a great job explaining all the rest of the construction, but it seemed to me from the attempted interpretation given in the question that 'losing battle' was the core of the difficulty for dbwlsld
    – Igid
    Jul 27, 2017 at 17:16

... it will merely take someone else who is prepared to fight what seems a losing battle next time...

It will merely take { } next time.

That is, it will only require { } next time.

Let's look at { }:

{ someone else who is prepared to fight what seems a losing battle }

{ } contains a noun phrase modified by a who-clause :

someone else who...

And the who-clause itself contains a predicate:

someone else who is prepared

That is, someone else who is ready.

And what must someone else be prepared or ready to do?

someone else who is prepared to fight

And what or who must someone else be prepared to fight?

someone else who is prepared to fight {what seems a losing battle}

That is, prepared to fight something which may seem to be a battle he or she cannot win.



I only want to play video games.

I merely want to play video games.

In this case, "merely" doesn't work quite as well when trying to say that I want to play video games and do nothing else.. "only" does better at conveying exclusion.


For merely two dollars more, you can upgrade to the next size.

For only two dollars more, you can upgrade to the next size.

In this case, "merely" does a better job of including a feeling of the bare minimum.. the absolute, least amount required.

Beyond that, there is no difference. But again, "merely" is better at describing the least amount needed, whereas "only" is better at illustrating exclusion.

  • I think it's a bit disingenuous to switch from adverbial merely to adjectival a mere to illustrate your minimal/exclusive distinction (which I don't necessarily disagree with anyway). Let's face it, no salesman today would be likely to tempt you with For merely two dollars more [we'll throw in eternal life and a cure for cancer]. Jul 27, 2017 at 15:23
  • @FumbleFingers Okay, I can change it to merely and the example will still apply. Thanks. And yes, that's actually quite the cliche pitch for TV infomercials, which is why most people don't actually use "merely" in that context, in practice. Literature though? Sure.
    – user30379
    Jul 27, 2017 at 15:30
  • I'm not sure that edit helped your case! Like I said, no salesman today would be likely to use merely there. In fact, I see Google Books thinks it has 62 instances of For only two dollars more, and 10 of For just two dollars more. But they don't have any instances of For merely two dollars more (which to me just sounds "weird"). Jul 27, 2017 at 15:46
  • @FumbleFingers What does the usage frequency matter? The OP was asking why the author chose to use "merely" instead of "only", and I'm pretty sure J.K. Rowling didn't Google the usage of those words before deciding which to use. The bottom line is that she did use the word, so...
    – user30379
    Jul 27, 2017 at 15:48
  • 1
    One of the reasons Harry Potter became so popular is because there's an element of didacticism in Rowling's writing. She's obviously quite literate herself, and is deliberately trying to promote awareness of the breadth of English in her readers. Whose parents may often have at least glanced at the text, thought "This looks like fine writing!", and therefore been more than willing to encourage their children to read the entire series. Bear in mind I only said it's a relatively dated/literary usage - I didn't say it's no longer used, but it isn't very common in natural speech today. Jul 27, 2017 at 16:07

“A losing battle” is a figure of speech. It isn’t a battle you’re currently losing, it’s a battle you expect to lose, or at least feel unlikely to win — as Harry must have felt unlikely to win, this time, when he went up against Voldemort.

As for “merely”: Dumbledore is trying to reassure Harry. He’s trying to convince Harry that what Harry did was worthwhile, and that even though Voldemort isn’t truly dead, Harry should still have hope for the future. So to some extent he’s deliberately understating the difficulty, in order to raise Harry’s spirits.

It’s not that easy, obviously. But it is true that the fact Harry was able to stop Voldemort, even temporarily, should give Harry and everyone else hope that Voldemort can be stopped again in the future. That someone else who, like Harry, is prepared to fight, even if they don’t expect to win, will be able to stop Voldemort next time, and the time after that, and the time after that.

And in fact, the rest of the series is mostly examples of Harry and others fighting on, even as the odds against them get worse and worse, never completely stopping Voldemort but also never letting him get everything he wants—until (spoiler alert) they finally do put an end to him.

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