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  1. I only play tennis in the summer.
  2. I play tennis only in the summer.
  3. I play tennis in the summer only.

It there any difference in these 3 sentences?

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3 Answers 3

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Note that the italics are used here to indicate verbal stress - you would emphasize these words to clarify your meaning.

MEANING A. At some times of year I play tennis and some other sport, but in the summer I play tennis and not the other sport.

  1. I only play tennis in the summer.

  2. I play tennis only in the summer.

The second could be used in informal spoken English, with a one-word, flat pronunciation of "tennis only" - probably better to avoid it in written English


MEANING B. In the summer I play tennis, but the rest of the year I do not play tennis.

  1. I only play tennis in the summer.

  2. I play tennis only in the summer.

  3. I play tennis in the summer only.

So the difference between your three sentences is that the first two could carry either meaning depending on context or intonation. The third is unambiguous.

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Technically they are all correct and have the same meaning, but the first one is the most natural-sounding sentence.

I could imagine the second one as a response to a request (when the season is not summer) to play tennis. Seems like a bit of a snobbish response, in my opinion.

I'm not sure what would be the point of the third sentence. Perhaps as a dispassionate piece of information for someone.

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only is a magical word and in writing, it can change the meaning of the sentence depending on its position. Generally, it applies to the word next to it! I have explained this in several answers of mine on this site.

I only play tennis in the summer - I don't watch it on TV!

I play tennis only in the summer - In winter, I don't play.

I play tennis in the summer only -no word is following 'only' so, it's taken as a general reference. Probably close to the second sentence.

One example I always come up with is...

New software only confused the PA - it did not annoy her!
Only new software confused the PA - The old one did not confuse her!
New software confused the only PA -There was only one PA in the office


Note that I'd not lean toward 'stressing' a word while speaking it as the other answer talks about. It certainly affects the meaning of the sentence but then, you don't need the word 'only' to emphasize it.

I play tennis in the summer -stressing play would convey the message that you 'play' and don't 'watch' the sport in the summer

I play tennis in the summer - stressing tennis would convey the message that you 'play' only 'tennis' in the summer. Maybe, squash in the winter then!

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