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I wonder where in a sentence I should put the word: only. For example, here are some sample sentences:

I only sell apps to the young person.

I sell only apps to the young person.

I sell apps only to the young person.

I sell apps to the young person only.

In these four sentences, is there any difference between them in meaning?

I believe that the first one puts the meaning of only on the verb, while the second puts on the noun. The fourth puts the adverb (to the young person). The third one is either the noun or adverb, likely dependent on the context.

However, as far as I have read many English sentences for my life, most people don't mind where to put only in a sentence; they just force readers to get what only points to depending on the context.

So I wonder if there is any rule in the place of only. Or maybe there is a rule but is too often broken?

  • 1
    This is how I grasp the messages of your 4 sentences: (1) you want to put emphasis that you just sell, you do not buy nor trade; (2) same with 1, adding emphasis that you only sell apps, not electronic devices, etc. 3) emphasis on the fact that you sell to the 'young people' not to 'old ones'; and, (4) similar with (3). This is just an opinion (hence, I provided no explanation) I think the basic rule is you place it near the word, phrase, or clause in need of emphasis. + note on which word you emphasize as you say it. Let's wait for good answers. – shin Nov 18 '15 at 1:25
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Only can be an adverb or an adjective. Furthermore, as an adverb it can modify a verb or an adjective.

I only went there to see Becky.

I took the only piece of candy left.

There was only candy left.

Because of this, the position where only appears is crucial - the speaker/listener will associate it with the closest word.

So all of your sentences mean different things:

I only sell apps to the young person.

You don't do any other action besides selling apps to the young person.

I sell only apps to the young person.

You don't sell anything else but apps to the young person.

I sell apps only to the young person.

You don't sell apps to anyone except the young person.

I sell apps to the young person only.

You only sell apps to one person, and that person is the young person. This isn't too far off from the previous meaning.

Furthermore:

Only I sell apps to the young person

No one else but you sells apps to the young person

I sell apps to the only young person

There is only one young person and you sell apps to him.

  • Thank you for the clarification. Do most native speakers recognize these differences and use them accordingly? Seems to me that it's not the case... – Blaszard Nov 18 '15 at 1:56
  • In speech speakers may use clues like pauses (which could be rendered in writing as a comma), or the stress or pitch of words to indicate where they mean the "only" to apply. So in speech one could say "I sell apps only, {pause} to the young person" and then a listener would pick up that they mean "only" to apply to "apps" and not "to the young person." You can say "The only thing I do is X" or "The only thing I sell is X" if you want to prevent misunderstandings. – LawrenceC Nov 18 '15 at 2:02
  • Couldn't have explained it better... Well done LawrenceC. – Shonima Nandakumar Nov 19 '15 at 9:13

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