What is the differences between "if only" and "only if" ?

What is the use of each in the sentences? Are there any specific rules for their uses?

"I could get more work done if only there weren't so much noise."

"We will manufacture these handbags only if we can obtain the right leather."


3 Answers 3


Consider the following three sentences:

  1. If I had the money, I would get the operation.
  2. If only I had the money, I would get the operation.
  3. I would get the operation only if I had the money.

The first expresses a simple failed conditional. I don't have the money, but if I did, I would get the operation.

The second expresses a failed conditional with greater emotional content. I don't have the money, but if I did, I would get the operation and it really bothers me.

The third expresses a failed conditional, without the emotional content, but with a greater stress on the monetary constraint.

  • I am sorry, I accidentally downvoted your grear answer. I can't reverse the vote. Jul 9, 2020 at 15:02

"Only if" and "if only" are idiomatic phrases that are quite different in meaning.

"If" is used to express a condition. When used after only i.e. only if, it expresses a strong condition or the only situation in which something can happen. A few examples of its use are given below:

1- I'll come to the party only if I can bring my friend with me.

2- you will get your payment only if you complete the work.

We use the phrase "if only" to wish that something was true or something had happened. Please look at the following examples:

1- If only I were rich.

2- If only I were not so fat, I would be able to get into these trousers.

  • This is not accurate. The "if only" examples are not true; they are counterfactuals. "If only I were rich" --> I am not rich
    – eques
    Jan 5, 2015 at 15:08
  • eques, Pls consult OLD for the use of if only.
    – Khan
    Jan 6, 2015 at 5:07
  • "If I were" and "If only I were" both express counterfactuals, not true statements. "If only I were not so fat, I would be able to get into these trousers" If the person is not fat, then they wouldn't make the statement. What is this OLD you refer to?
    – eques
    Jan 6, 2015 at 14:38
  • eques, you are are right hey are counterfactuals. I don't say they are not. OLD - Oxford Learners Dictionary.
    – Khan
    Jan 6, 2015 at 19:50
  • A misread your initial statement. However that usage has nothing to do with the only; it has to do with "if I were" (less traditionally "If I was"). Only is an intensifier here. > If only I were rich.... vs. > If I were rich They mean more or less the same thing. The difference would be that the "only" implies that this one condition is what prevents the result.
    – eques
    Jan 6, 2015 at 20:06

if only

  1. even if for no other reason than:

Willy would have to tell George more, if only to stop him pestering.

(Oxford Dictionary of English)

b) used to give a reason for something, although you think it is not a good one

Media studies is regarded as a more exciting subject, if only because it’s new.


Hirohito would continue to act for the rest of his life as emperor, if in name only. Though many atrocities and human rights violations were attributed to him, he was never prosecuted for war crimes.


only if

(rather formal) used to state the only situation in which sth can happen

Only if a teacher has given permission is a student allowed to leave the room.

Only if the red light comes on is there any danger to employees.

(Oxford Learner's Dictionaries)

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