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Many dictionaries define "only too" as "very." If so, what does "only too" mean in the following?

"That was only too good to be true"

Does it mean "that was very good to be true"? Or "that could not be true at all"? What is the meaning of "only" here? I'd appreciate your help.

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    It is not something people say so who knows what it means. If you can't find a number of attestations, I'm going to vote to close the question on the grounds that you're just coining phrases and asking what they mean. It's possible a speaker is using only there as a synonym for just but that is an idiosyncratic use with this particular phrase. Attestations please. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 24 '18 at 13:20
  • ... he lifted up her hands and eyes, and said she would try to believe it; but she thought it was only too good to be true. – Apollyon Dec 24 '18 at 13:23
  • How did he lift up her eyes? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 24 '18 at 13:23
  • In terms of methodology, your web link would suffice as grounds for a question, but not as an attestation. Use Google Books for attestations, not web pages. We have to be reasonably confident that a native speaker is the author and that the work is intended for an audience of native speakers. Also, always provide at least several attestations to show that the phrase is not a one-off. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 24 '18 at 13:25
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The use of only too is generally a way of reinforcing too.

It is far more often used in front of true than of good. People also use so so in the same sense to emphasise a point.

They are so so good to us
That is so so true of his attitude

The more popular expression is only too true, a way of expressing strong agreement with a statement that somebody has made.

Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that its use rose in popularity in the second half of the 19th century and declined towards the end of the 20th.

In your example too good to be true means that something (generally an offer or a description of a desirable product) is not credible. Hyped up is another way of putting it.

Only too good to be true would simply be emphasising the dubious nature of whatever was concerned.

  • "Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that its use..." Please cite a few of these attestations of "only too good to be true". Or do you mean something else by "its"? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 24 '18 at 17:14
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo In spite of some searching, I've yet to find a neat way of citing Ngram results (of the kind I've seen from fumblefingers). Mine run to several lines. Guidance appreciated. – Ronald Sole Dec 25 '18 at 1:02
  • I don't have a particularly neat way, but if you follow the links at the bottom of the Ngram search page, you will come to a page listing individual texts which may or may not match the pattern. You can visit each of those texts in turn to determine whether it's an actual match, and if so, copy the URL into the answer using the add-link button on the editor. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 25 '18 at 1:15
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo Grateful. Happy Christmas – Ronald Sole Dec 25 '18 at 1:21
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The sentence means that it is so good that you can not believe that such situations were possible or can continue.

  • What does "only" mean there? – Apollyon Dec 24 '18 at 13:16
  • The sentence is an expression that is used in English – user85640 Dec 24 '18 at 13:21
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Yes. It means that it could not be true at all. An impossibility. Too good to be true means that which is very hard to happen, exist or believe.

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There is nothing wrong with many constructions of only too:

✔ I'm only too happy to help you.
✔ They knew only too well that the bell meant playtime was over.

There is also nothing wrong with other words used in front of too good to be true:

✔ That was just too good to be true.
✔ That was simply too good to be true.

Both of these sound fine. The first arguably means something that has just crossed the line from believable to unbelievable. Although, in normal usage, it is actually just putting emphasis on something that is too good to be true.


But this sounds wrong to me:

? That was only too good to be true.

I don't see see how only can be used in this construction and make sense. To me, it has the same meaning as:

✘ That was solely too good to be true.

While this is technically grammatical, solely too good (as with only too good) is somewhat nonsensical—not least of all because it's not used idiomatically.

Possibly, you could interpret it as:

✔ On its own, that was too good to be true.

Or:

✔ Barring other considerations, that was too good to be true.

However, that would mean that you are reinterpreting the syntactic use of only, and changing it from an adverb (that modifies too) into an implied introductory clause. You'd be replacing what's actually written with something that isn't written at all.

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