I came across the below sentence from my English textbook:

He's only young, but he's learning fast

The structure 'only...but' is quite strange to me. I also found another example on Givemesport.com website

In charge of Manchester United, Ferguson was keen to bring Oxlade-Chamberlain to the club - and even sung his praises when asked about the possibility of signing him.

"Alex Chamberlain is only young but he has potential," said Ferguson.

Source: http://www.givemesport.com/1150800-what-alex-ferguson-said-about-alex-oxladechamberlain-in-2011

I guess that the meaning of the structure 'only...but' is similar to 'not only...but also', like:

If this project fails it will affect not only our department, but also the whole organization.

Source: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/department

Is my guess correct?

  • 1
    It has the same meaning with "Even though". So, your sentence means, "Even though he's young, he's learning fast." Dec 23 '17 at 9:09

It's like saying "despite being A, he is B" or (as Aragaki Aya says), "Even though A is true, B is true". The only is just an emphasis of the first condition, following the structure, "A but B".

The horse is small but swift.

She is young but determined.

However, if you do use "only" it does sound better if you use more complete sentences,

The horse is only small, but he is swift.

She is only young, but she is determined.

This works with other verbs too:

The restaurant is only open in the evenings but it is very popular.

The restaurant only has limited seating, but it is always crowded.

  • 1
    "He is just young, but he is learning fast". Can we use "just" in this example?
    – Raj 33
    Dec 23 '17 at 17:44
  • 2
    @Raj33 It's possible, but it doesn't sound quite right to me. "He is just a young boy, but he is learning fast" sounds better.
    – Andrew
    Dec 23 '17 at 17:55

"only... but" is not equivalent to "not only... but also".

The phrases you quoted are not idiomatic. I find the combination "only young" somewhat odd. It's far more common to use either "only [age]" or "too young", as in "she's only sixteen/too young, she should not get married".

The word "only" is used here literally, it is a part of a statement and does not require any completion such as "but". The sentence may include a "but" later on, but the "but" has its usual meaning and does not require the "only".

The situation is quite different with "not only". It is idiomatic and can be followed by any statement (it is not a part of that statement). And it must always be completed with its counterpart "but also", and vice versa - they always come together. (Well, you may find colloquial counterexamples, but that's the rule).


Not only is she too young, but also her boyfriend is a criminal. (Idiomatic)

She is too young, but she insists on getting married. ("But" stands alone)

She's only sixteen, so marriage is not a good idea. ("Only" stands alone)

I don't believe she will get married soon. She's only young, she isn't stupid. (This can work; but "but" wouldn't fit here!)

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