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I commonly see sentences constructed like:

"I can only imagine how much time she spent on [something]."

I can't grasp the meaning of " I can only imagine", however. In what contexts would this expression be used? Is it for emphasis, or for poetic style, or simply to seem fancy or posh?

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    A few examples would help a lot. In fact, the sentence can be uttered stand-alone. How many hats will be in this year's Winter Bash? (Answer: I can only imagine.) It would also help to know why you're puzzled - which of the words here are confusing you? Is it can? Only? Without any further elaboration, I can only imagine where the comprehension problem might be.
    – J.R.
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 8:50

5 Answers 5

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As others have noted, context is quite important for phrases like this.

As a generalisation, however, "I can only imagine" usually indicates one of two things (which often overlap somewhat in practice).

That the speaker is talking about something unusual, extreme, shocking, or otherwise exceptional. The intended implication is "I have to use my imagination to visualise that, because I have never had a real experience that I can compare it to."

"I can only imagine what it must have been like inside that burning building."

"I can only imagine what winning a Nobel Prize feels like"

That the speaker has no way of knowing something (and therefore has to use their imagination to fill in the blank spaces).

"Who is that coming towards us?" "I can only imagine."

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The context is important.

But broadly, I can only imagine means the speaker can think of something hypothetical. The thing has not happened but he can have a picture of it.

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I can only imagine what it will be like when my kids see me after four years.

I can only imagine how my parents all be happy when they know I stood first in my examinations.

I can only imagine how it feels to be blind.

You use such a phrase "to think or form an idea/picture in your mind of what someone or something will be like".

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It's a sort of an empathy statement for someone who shared bad experience(s) that you've never been gone before, and you're trying to let them feel how strong you see they are while under that circumstances.

Sample Scenario: Someone's Mom died and says, "My mom is the one who teaches me everything in this world, except to live without her." (ouch!) Like, Damn son... I almost cried while typing this and why the hell I came up on this idea for a sample scenario?

Because I can only imagine how tough it is, but I don't know if I can bear the sadness and emotion when it happens to me.

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There could be different contexts in which this phrase can be used. I'll make one up here.

Consider the following context.

There are children in few African countries who go hungry everyday. They even go hungry to the point of being reduced to just one layer of skin over there body.

Now for us, it is safe to assume that most of us are not going to face this situation in our life. So what would be you reaction watching the news about this thing or seeing the pictures of these scrawny little kids.

'I can only imagine how it must be to go hungry everyday' - (Because you can't possibly understand their feelings or situation as you have never experienced them in your life.)

What else we can only imagine ?- (Things we never experienced and probably will never experience)

1. We can only imagine the aftermath of nuclear explosion.
2. We can only imagine the sufferings of Jews in world war two.
3. He was eaten alive by the crocodile. - How horrific !! - We can only imagine his agony.
4. I can only imagine how it feels like being the richest man in the world.

However if we take out the word 'only' in the above sentece then it would mean that you understand someone's concern / problem / feelings etc, because you know / understand / experienced sth yourself

For example

Suppose if your boss severely tells off one of your collegues in a meeting room for poor performance and later that collegue comes out of the meeting room and says

Collegue - The boss really got at me in the meeting

You - yeah I can imagine.

(Here you can actually figure out whatever things the boss must said to your collegue since you have had the same experience in the past before)

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