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Isn't "only" supposed to be in front of a singular noun? I think means in this sentence means the way of doing something. Wouldn't putting only in front of it make the sentence into something like the only way of many?

Looking back now, I can see why the Exchanges became so important to us. For a start, they were our only means, aside from the Sales—the Sales were something else, which I’ll come to later—of building up a collection of personal possessions.

Novel - Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishuguru.

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    mean = querer decir; here=manera
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 15:50
  • Yes, you're completely correct, Camillo. (You may have been confused by the interjection in dashes? Just delete the interjection, and you will see it easily.)
    – Fattie
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 17:52

2 Answers 2

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From Dictionary.com:

means / (miːnz) /

noun

1 (functioning as singular or plural)

the medium, method, or instrument used to obtain a result or achieve an end

a means of communication

As indicated in the definition and its example above, “means” can be singular even though it ends in “s”. You have to look at context to figure out which it is.

In your example, it’s not completely clear. “The Exchanges” might be a single joint means, or they might each be separate means. If the author had used “way” or “ways”, we’d know for sure. But it turns out not to matter.

“Only” is more often used with singular nouns, but it can be used with plural nouns as well. For instance, I have only two weeks left to file my taxes.

So, the sentence works regardless of whether “means” is singular or plural.

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    I disagree that the use is plural in the original. Rather, I read it as the collective singular (eg. "Oranges are not the only fruit.") "Exchanges", as a collection, are a single means to an end. The individual collections are not each an individual means. This is admittedly nit-picky, however!
    – BadZen
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 2:18
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    @BadZen Good catch. Better now?
    – StephenS
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 2:30
  • @BadZen "Exchanges" is also plural, and it uses the plural pronoun "they" to refer to them.
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 16:47
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    @Barmar "Oranges are interesting, but they are the not only fruit." Fruit is singular. Similarly, "way" works in place of "means" in the original sentence. So, even if "Exchanges" is plural, "means" might not be. Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 3:06
  • "Oranges are interesting" refers to oranges in general. But "The oranges" would be plural. Similarly, "Exchanges" is a reference to exchanges in general, but "the Exchanges" is a specific set of exchanges, and is plural. @BrianMcCutchon
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 5:18
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There is no rule that says "only" must occur before a singular noun. For example, the following sentence is perfectly fine:

Only criminals break the law.

In the sentence in your question, "means" is used to mean "a resource or method with or by which a goal may be achieved".

So if "exchanges" "were our only means... of building up a collection of personal possessions", "we" had no way besides "exchanges" to "build up a collection of personal possessions".

"Our only means" indicates there were no alternatives.

Finally, "means" is not plural above. The following sentence is correct and the article agrees in number:

It is only a means to an end

When "means" is plural, it is spelled just the same. This may be confusing, but some nouns in English just work this way. So, we could also say:

There may not be any means by which to achieve our goal.

In the above sentence, which is also correct, "means" is plural.

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  • In fact, as far as I know, the only time when you would use "mean" without an 's' as a noun would be in mathematics, as a synonym for "average". You would never, for example, say "a mean to an end". Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 15:19

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