It's only natural that you should worry about your children.

How would it be different if I removed “only” from the sentence?

It's natural that you should worry about your children.

What does “only” mean and emphasise here? Is there a way to rewrite the sentence and save the meaning it conveys?

I’d love to have some examples. Thank you in advance.

2 Answers 2


"Only" (and in some cases "just") is often used in this way as emphasis. The actual meaning will vary, but usually means that whatever follows is less extreme, less significant, less uncommon, or less unusual than you might expect. For example:

My car wouldn't start, but I found it was only that I was out of gas.

Here "only" implies that I expected the problem would be serious, but it turned out to be minor. Another example:

She made a trip halfway across town only to buy some pastries from a bakery she really likes.

Here there is an expectation that, if she is going to make such an effort, she would be expected to buy more than just some pastries.

To start to understand Buddhist thought, only remember the fact that nothing is permanent and everything changes.

Here there is an expectation that Buddhist philosophy might be complicated, so the "only" reminds the reader that it actually is based on a simple philosophy.

In your example, "only" implies less extreme. While it's expected that parents will worry about their children, some people might still think it's unusual. The "only" helps reassure their parents that their concern is reasonable.

  • I don’t understand how “only” makes “normal” more normal or less extreme. Could it be superfluous in some cases or here? Feb 22, 2019 at 22:56
  • I guess I can replace “only” with “just” in examples 2 (just to buy some pastries) and 3 (just remember the fact). Can I do it for example 1 as well? Feb 22, 2019 at 23:01
  • Wouldn’t it better to reword (and, probably, simply) example 1 to “My car wouldn't start, but I found that I was simply/only/just out of gas”? Would it be correct? Feb 22, 2019 at 23:13
  • 1
    @AndrewTobilko Certainly there are different ways to express certain ideas in English, but as long as they are idiomatic none are "better" than the others. They're just different, and might not convey the same information. "Only" and "just" are useful in sentences like these -- there's no need to "reword" to clarify, because the intention is already perfectly clear. As intensifier words, they can often be omitted, but they are not superfluous any more than others like "very" or "most".
    – Andrew
    Feb 23, 2019 at 1:55
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    @AndrewTobilko For example, I can say, "She is pretty" instead of "She is very pretty", but that would change my intended meaning. In the same way, "It is only normal that ...' has more emphasis than, "It is normal that ..."
    – Andrew
    Feb 23, 2019 at 1:59

In the sentence that you quoted, "only" is an adverb modifying 'natural' and meaning 'not more than'. If I say that it is only normal to worry about my children, I mean that it is not neurotic, excessive or overprotective, and that the feeling is reasonable and to be expected. If you do $100 worth of damage to my car, it is only fair if I ask you for $100 in compensation (but not if I ask for $150 or $200). Cambridge Dictionary gives this definition: "used to show that something is limited to not more than, or is not anything other than, the people, things, amount, or activity stated." The dictionary actually gives your quoted sentence as an example of this usage. If you removed 'only' from that, you would be removing the assertion that there is nothing excessive in worrying about your children, and merely saying that it is normal.

Only (Cambridge Dictionary)

  • If you say that it is normal to worry about your children, you still mean that “it is not neurotic, excessive or overprotective”. Isn’t “only” superfluous here? Feb 22, 2019 at 22:19
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    If you use 'only' you are emphasising that the action or feeling is not excessive. The utterance is stronger than if 'only' is omitted. If the emphasis is intended, then it is not superfluous to use it. We do not talk in a flat and unemotional style all of the time. Feb 22, 2019 at 23:26

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