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He only knew he was now married. (COCA)

In the sentence alone, when there aren’t any other sayings, can you tell which ‘only’ intensify: (1) previous noun, ‘he,’ as in 'The bar is for members only(OALD)'; (2) its following words, ‘knew he was now married.’ Or do you have to defer your decision until you get further contextual information?

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Theoretically, it could mean

  1. He alone (and nobody else) knew he was now married.
  2. He merely knew (but did not fully comprehend) he was now married.
  3. All he knew was that he was now married (he knew nothing more).

Practically, however, he only knew will usually mean 3, although in the strictest formal discourse only precedes the term it modifies and therefore 2 'should' be the default: most people would find other ways to express either 1 or 2.

And in speech there would be no ambiguity: the three meanings call for entirely different stresses and vowel lengths (bold is primary stress, italic is secondary):

  1. He only · knew he was now married.
  2. He only knew · he was now married.
  3. He only knew he was now married.

So Yes, you need context; but of course the context is just as likely to be present in what precedes the statement as in what follows it.

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