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Solely: only; not involving somebody/something else

Examples in the dictionary:

  • She was motivated solely by self-interest.
    Selection is based solely on merit.
    He became solely responsible for the firm.

After reading the definition and examples in dictionaries, I still can't get my head around the difference between "solely" and "only".

What's the difference between these two words? For example, can I say:

All students entering university should solely study subjects that will be of use for their future.

Solely may or may not work in this sentence, but I think as adverbs, they are not interchangeable.

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    I'd say that they are generally interchangeable.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jul 10 at 11:46
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    The only one that isn't really interchangeable here the usage in "He became solely responsible for the firm". Here it means "singly".
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Jul 10 at 11:54
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    They sometimes mean the same. As your dictionary tells you, solely has the additional meaning not involving somebody else - also, you wouldn't use it in everyday conversation. We don't say "It'll solely take a minute" or "I have solely two pounds left in my purse". Commented Jul 10 at 14:13
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    No. The 'not involving somebody else' meaning can only refer to one person doing something on their own. Don't forget that the examples I gave were of things you can't say - but, in any case, the number of coins is irrelevant. Commented Jul 10 at 16:18
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    In those examples, we use only to emphasise that we are talking about a small amount - only two pounds - or a short time - only a minute. Solely is not used in this sense. Commented Jul 10 at 16:46

2 Answers 2

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only offers more flexible positioning in some respects and more limited positioning in others where ambiguity is to be avoided.

He alone became responsible for the firm, i.e. he acquired exclusive control over its operations and destiny:

He became solely responsible for the firm.

He, only, commas required became responsible for the firm.

*He became only responsible for the firm.

Her motivation was self-interest unmixed with any other motive:

She was motivated solely by self-interest.

She was motivated only by self-interest.

She was motivated by self-interest only.

*She was motivated by self-interest solely.

The sole criterion for selection is merit:

Selection is based solely on merit.

Selection is based only on merit.

Selection is based on merit only.

*Selection is based on merit solely.

P.S. Sentences marked with a leading asterisk are marginal or ungrammatical, or do not unambiguously convey the meaning set forth in the rubric.

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  • I assume you have marked with an asterisk those sentences that to you are wrong/unnatural. If so, it would be worth noting that in your answer. Otherwise, excellent answer. Commented Jul 10 at 13:33
  • @PeterKirkpatrick Yes, that's an academic convention that not everyone maybe familiar with. I'll add a note.
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 10 at 14:04
  • I have noticed that solely is used mostly before prepositional phrases. I've run through around 30 examples in 3 dictionaries and 90% of them include the word solely preceding a preposition; 9%, preceding an adjective; and only 3%, preceding a verb. Why is that so? In my last example above, solely precedes a verb. Is there anything wrong with it? Commented Jul 10 at 14:25
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    @AnIELTSLearner solely meaning "exclusively" is not an apt modifier for most verbs, and if it is at all apt, only is probably more apt. It only chips the paint when it should be sanding it down.
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 10 at 14:36
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    @AnIELTSLearner Sorry, when I looked up I saw only the three. only is more usual in that situation with study. I wouldn't write it that way, however, but would put only in front of the word subjects, or perhaps even "only those subjects that..."
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 10 at 15:12
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Difference between solely and only.
"Only" can function as either an adjective or an adverb. "Solely" can only be an adverb. (sole = adjective)

Dictionary meaning "only" Ref. Cambridge dictionary
1.used to show that there is a single one or very few of something, or that there are no others:
2.used to show that something is limited to not more than, or is not anything other than, the people, things, amount, or activity stated:
Dictionary meaning "solely".
solely.
adverb.
1: to the exclusion of all else done solely for money.
2: without another : SINGLY.
went solely on her way

OP has mentioned
Solely may or may not work in this sentence, but I think as adverbs, they are not interchangeable.

Let's see how "solely and only" might be interchanged in the sentences given by the OP.

1.She was motivated solely by self-interest.
2.Selection is based solely on merit.
3.He became solely responsible for the firm.
4.All students entering university should solely study subjects that will be of use for their future. B

1.Interchangeable - She was only motivated by self-interest.
2.can use only - Selection is based only on merit.
3.cannot use only - He became completely responsible for the firm.
4.All students entering university should only study subjects that will be of use for their future.

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  • “Solely" is only an adverb, not an adjective. As a focusing modifier, “only” is also an adverb, though elsewhere it's an adjective, as in "My only reservation is the cost".
    – BillJ
    Commented Jul 10 at 17:42
  • In sentence 2 they are interchangeable. Commented Jul 10 at 19:38

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