4

I always get confused between the placement of adverbs:

  1. She has only ten dollars.
  2. Only she has ten dollars.
  3. I answered only four questions.
  4. I only answered four questions.

I think the meaning is the same for both sentences. My teacher says that the sentences have different meanings.

Could anyone explain the different meanings of the above sentences?

3

I would interpret the first sentence as saying she has 10 dollars, and nothing else (e.g. she doesn't have 20 dollars); I would interpret the second sentence as meaning she is the only present person who has 10 dollars.
I would interpret the other two sentences as, respectively:

  • You answered 4 questions, not 5 or more.
  • You limited yourself to answering 4 questions; you didn't do anything else, such as voting to close those questions, flagging them for moderation attention, or down-voting them.
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2

The difference between the first two sentences is unambiguous:

(a) She has only ten dollars means that she doesn't have any more money than $10. (b) Only she has ten dollars means no one except her has ten dollars.

Thus (a) when only is placed between the verb and the object, the object ($10) is characterized as not enough; (b) when only is placed before the subject the action of state is limited to the subject, not anyone/anything else.

The difference between the other two sentences is ambiguous because meaning (a) above can be shown with only placed before the verb, in which case your two sentences have the same meaning - Meaning (a): I answered 4 questions, which wasn't sufficient.

Or,

(c) when only is placed before the verb, it can mean that the action/state of the verb, and no other action/state, happened or existed.

Thus, I only answered four questions could mean:

Meaning (a): I answered 4 questions, and this action/quantity wasn't sufficient.

or

Meaning (c): I answered 4 questions; I did not (for some strange examples) ask them or sing them or...

In most, but not all cases, the context would resolve such ambiguity; presumably, meaning (a) would be obvious for your context.

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  • I answered only four questions. is grammatically correct? If yes both mean the same? – Sudhir Mar 10 '13 at 9:38
  • Yes it is correct and has "meaning (a)": I answered 4 questions, which wasn't sufficient. I have edited my answer to make that more clear. – Shawn Mooney Mar 10 '13 at 9:42
1

I am not a native speaker but I'd like to point out that it is very common in English to place only in front of the main verb in a sentence, instead of the word it directly modifies. This doesn't usually change the meaning. Sometimes it can make a sentence a little more ambiguous, but usually the context and/or intonation make it clear what exactly is meant.

For example:

I've met him only once. = I've only met him once.

We have only five minutes to get there. = We only have five minutes to get there.

I can do this only if you ask me. = I can only do this if you ask me.

Some people believe that you should always place only immediately before the word/phrase it modifies to avoid ambiguity. It may be more important in writing, but I think it rarely causes confusion in speech.

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