I only stare at pretty girls

I stare only at pretty girls

One of the answers helped me understand using only in different sentences but I am unable to figure out the exact difference between the two sentences. They look similar, but do they mean the same?

Also, in the link, one of the sentences was " I teach you only enough to help you pass the test". Is the sentence used only colloquially or can it also be used formally.

2 Answers 2


There is a distinction between the two sentences.

To say: I ONLY stare at pretty girls indicates that you do not react with them in any other way, for example:

I only stare at pretty girls; I never speak to them.

That's to say that only is modifying stare. All you do is stare; nothing else.

Compare that with:

I stare only at pretty girls; unattractive girls I ignore.

Here only is modifying at pretty girls and not stare. It tells us who you stare at but it doesn't mean that you don't approach the pretty girls and talk to them as well; just that you don't stare at those who are not pretty.

Compare that with the following sentences in which the meaning changes with the placing of only:

I only kissed Mary (all I did was to kiss her)
Only I kissed Mary (I was the only one who kissed her)
I kissed only Mary (I did not kiss anyone else).

(The sentence at the end of your question is perfectly idiomatic. It sounds a little formal, clearly a statement from a teacher to a pupil rather than part of a chatty conversation.)

  • 2
    I think maybe you should start with There is a potential distinction between the two sentences. Most native speakers in most contexts would not make that distinction, and would thus treat OP's two examples as 100% equivalent (unless the "unusual" meaning was clearly indicated by applying heavy stress to the word stare, which would make it crystal clear that's the target word being modified by only). Feb 25, 2020 at 15:41
  • @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica Fair enough. Only loves to creep towards the front of a sentence. It's probably the most misplaced word in English - leading to frequent ambiguity and confusion! Feb 25, 2020 at 15:54
  • In my view, answering a question with how you think the language should be, rather than how it is, is doing a disservice to the questioner.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 25, 2020 at 16:02

Most English speakers would use only the first, whether they meant "only" to apply to "stare", "pretty" or "pretty girls". (In speech, the different possibilities can be distinguished by emphasis). In most contexts I would understand it as applying to "pretty".

The second sentence is perfectly grammatical, and would be used when the speaker wants to clarify that it is the "pretty" or the "pretty girls" that are distinguished by "only", and not the "stare". It is still potentially ambiguous between those two.

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