My question is the following: Is it grammatically accurate to say

I have only a few friends

If I were asked I would say that

I only have a few friends

is just perfect according to the rule below.

My idea of the word order in sentences with 'only/just/almost' is that we should use them before the main verb but after the verbs 'to be' and 'can' e.g.:

I only have a few friends.
I have just done my homework.
I'm almost finished.

Could you direct me to some relieble sources where I can find justification?


3 Answers 3


Both forms are valid English but have different meanings depending on whether only modifies the noun I or the object, a few friends:

  • In I only have a few friends, only modifies the subject I and asserts that the speaker has nothing but a few friends.
  • In I have only a few friends, only modifies the object a few friends and asserts that only a few of the person's acquaintances are friends.

See http://www.wikihow.com/Use-the-Word-Only-Correctly for a more complete discussion of this issue.


Yes, your sentence is perfectly correct. Also you can say both

I only have a few friends

I have only a few friends

But I'd prefer 1st one to 2nd approach.

EDIT: You can change emphasis of a sentence.

I only have a few eggs.

I have only a few eggs.

NOTICE: Don't forget that it always should be put before the verb. It will be truly more correct.

  • 1
    This NGram (comparing relative prevalence for I only had a dollar and I had only a dollar strongly suggests a usage shift whereby you are now aligned with the majority in preferring to put only BEFORE the verb if there's no significant potential for ambiguity. Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 16:10
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    ...note that in closely related constructions there may be different possible meanings, so the position of only can make a big difference. Thus one could say I only loaded the shotgun [I didn't fire it], as opposed to I loaded only the shotgun [I didn't load the revolver]. Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 16:14
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    @Rompey: I don't see what you're getting at. The meaning you've set out is equally plausible regardless of whether only comes before or after the verb, since it's logically impossible (for me at least) to imagine how the sense of have there could be implicitly contrasted with some "more extreme" alternative. So it's not the same as the potential distinction in I only like you [I don't love you] as opposed to I like only you [I don't like anyone else]. Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 17:03
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    @FumbleFingers "I only have my cake, since I can't also eat it." But you can consider the wordplay required to construct a sentence like that to be a proof of your point.
    – David K
    Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 22:30
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    @David K: <kneeling before Zod> My point may have been proved (proven?), but at what cost? Your somewhat crushingly-made point leaves me in no doubt that your powers of imagination far exceed mine! With lateral thinking like that I bet you'd wipe the floor with me in a cryptic crossword competition! :) Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 17:14

The modifier only--together with just, nearly, and barely --is often thought to have the bad habit of slipping into the wrong place in a sentence. But in your examples its placement, be it immediately after the verb or between the subject and the verb, will be correct.

Of course, there may be cases where placing it between the subject and the verb will course a confusion.

For example, the sentence

"I only threw the stone thirty yards"

is confusing,

whereas the sentence

"I threw the stone only thirty yards"

is explicit.

So, my opinion of a learner on the issue of the proper placement of “only” in a sentence, no matter how long it's been argued among grammarians, is this:

Place it wherever you feel it should be and just see if the sentence reads explicitly.

As for the two:

I only have a few friends


I have only a few friends

each of them doesn't course a confusion whatsoever, so they both are grammatically correct.

  • 1
    How is "I only threw the stone thirty yards" confusing? The only thing I can think of is someone might imagine that you're saying that you only threw it and didn't carry it or roll it. But that seems very strange -- it's much more natural to use "only" to qualify a quantity than types that don't have any inherent ordering. Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 21:42
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    @DavidSchwartz - Well, doesn't it qualify the distance rather than the action? So, the "I only threw" version did make you think of what I did with the stone: threw it or carried it? Isn't that version confusing then? Whereas the second one leaves no place for any confusion -- I did throw it but not very far- only at the distance thirty yards, or at the distance of only thirty yards. But I threw it, not carried or rolled it. I'm sorry, but I can't get your point. And please, let's call it a day - it's well past midnight here and a long time I turned in. Your comment is highly appreciated.
    – Victor B.
    Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 22:17
  • @DavidSchwartz Maybe I tried to throw various objects, but the stone was the only one that went thirty yards when I threw it.
    – David K
    Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 22:33
  • So the "I only threw" version has become yet more confusing, has it not? Añd that's that?
    – Victor B.
    Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 22:38
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    @Rompey No. Those other interpretations are quite far fetched. Meanwhile, the use of "only" with something measurement or clear ordering is very strong. So that the "only" means not more than thirty yards is the dominant interpretation and the others would only be imagined if there was some specific reason to think so. And if you want to get that bizarre, "only thirty yards" is confusing too, because you don't know of the only refers to just "thirty" (and not forty) or to "thirty yards" (and not also in the air or down a well). It's not confusing because only one interpretation is measurable. Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 2:06

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