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What's the difference between these sentences?

I only have a friend.

I only have one friend.

Or are they actually the same?

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  • 4
    If you say "I only have an apple", it likely means you don't have any bananas, pears, grapes, or other fruit. It might mean you don't have any other food at all. Or it might mean you have absolutely no other possessions with you, depending what question you were responding to when you said it.
    – The Photon
    Commented Apr 24, 2022 at 5:21
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    Reminds me of what happened when a singer put the lyrics for “You ain’t never had a friend like me,” from Disney’s Aladdin, through Google Translate and back. “You do not have a friend. Neither do I.”
    – Davislor
    Commented Apr 24, 2022 at 19:31
  • In the negative, by the way, I would probably say, “I don’t have any friends.” If I didn’t, that is!
    – Davislor
    Commented Apr 24, 2022 at 19:35
  • 1
    I only have a friend but I'd like a lover. / I only have one friend and that's you. / I have only one friend but many lovers. Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 15:37

7 Answers 7

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The two sentences are different.

We use the indefinite article a or an when you mean one of something, but you are not drawing attention to the actual number. The number is not important.

For example:

(1) Let’s go to a restaurant!
(2) I had a strange dream last night.
(3) Would you like a sandwich?
(4) I have a book in my bag.

We use one when you wish to draw attention to the number,when the number is important.

For example:

(1) My father has only one tooth.
(2) How many spoons of sugar would you like? One spoon, please.
(3) My doctor told me to take one pill a day.

So in your example, I only have one friend is more suitable.

Attribution

http://masteringarticles.com/indefinite-article-with-numbers/

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    "So in your example, I only have one friend is more suitable." How can you know which one is more suitable? The OP didn't provide any context for their example.
    – Stef
    Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 12:08
  • @Stef Because of the keyword "only"
    – user150280
    Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 15:02
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The meanings are different because of what they imply you don't have.

So if you say "I only have a friend", it means you don't have something that is not a friend. "Not a friend" could mean an enemy or a lover, or something else, as might be clear from context:

Please bring your wife to the reception.

But I don't have a wife; I only have a friend.

This is a rather odd way of expressing this idea, however "I only have a pencil" implying "I don't have a pen" is natural enough.

On the other hand, using "one" focuses on the number. "only one friend" means not more than one.

Please bring three friends to the reception.

But I don't have three friends; I only have one friend.

Similarly "I only have one pencil" implies you don't have many pencils.

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They are not the same, let’s look at the “only have a” in other contexts.

“Let’s fix your car, bring your tools” to which an appropriate reply might be “I only have a hammer”. Or perhaps “We are having a pets party, bring your cats and dogs” where one might reply “I only have a dog”.

There is an expectation that you have more than one of a set of things that are not all the same, which needs to be refuted.

So, “We’re going to have a game of baseball, bring a friend and a pair of gloves”, to which you might then reply “I only have a friend”. Note that what you are refuting is not that you have multiple friends, it’s that you have a pair of gloves.

Similar to “Bring your spouse and kids”, where you might say you only have a spouse. You aren’t saying you don’t have multiple spouse, you are saying you don’t have any kids.

As for having “only one friend”… Saying you only have one friend or zero or two or any fixed number, requires you to be oddly specific, because in the normal course of things, nobody cares how many you have. You would only say that when it was necessary to be precise about how many friends you have. Absent a security background check or talking to a psychiatrist, it’s not going to matter whether you have one BFF for life and a dozen acquaintances or a dozen BFF’s and only 3 or 4 acquaintances.

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The first sentence would not be a common one. It could be a reply to a question such as "Do you have a lover?" or "Do you have a supervisor?"

"No, I only have a friend." -- implying that the person who asked is wrong about the status of your friend. It doesn't seem to be a normal conversation, but it could arise. Usually a person who asks such a question would refer to a specific person, and the answer would, as well. "Is she your lover?" "No, only a friend."

Alternatively, the first sentence could be used to say that you have no relations other than friendship with anyone except one person. "Is there no one else in your life?" "No, I only have a friend."

The second one would be used to make clear that you do not have any friends but one. "Don't you have a lot of friends?" "I only have one friend."

They are very different.

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  • What a great first sentence. They are the same answer but are nearly opposites, the same answer in the presence of a question can say "I have nothing" and "I have everything". Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 16:38
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The 1st sentence means you're not referring to any specific friend. In contrast, when you say the friend, you'd mean a specific friend. In either case, you'd need some context to make the phrase complete, as the focus of the statement is on your friend, so you'd have to say something about your friend.
eg. My classmates are bringing their families and neighbors to the graduation, and I only have a friend coming to graduation with me.

In the 2nd case, the sentence itself is complete, as the focus of the sentence is on the number of friends and you've mentioned that number, being one.
eg. All my classmates have many friends, and I only have one friend.

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They are not the same.

"One" means literally one. You cannot have another if you have one.

"A" means one from a group. While the friend you are talking about might be the only friend you have, it is also possible that it is just one of a few (or many) friends you have.

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"I only have a friend" by itself could never be meaningful; neither in language nor in logic. Wider context might give it a meaning, and that's about the wider context.

"I only have one friend" is not only clear and complete, but also meaningful by itself.

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