Definition of only in English:



  • 1And no one or nothing more besides; solely.

    ‘there are only a limited number of tickets available’
    ‘only their faith sustained them’
    • ‘Christopher has been to York only once before, ironically when he had another injury.’
    • ‘Lord Lansdowne said the estate has only covered its losses once in the past 13 years.’
    • ‘Once only a few precious Yuppies had cellphones, now every burglar has at least one mobile.’
    • ‘I've only worn them out once - but I have been known to slip them on to do the hoovering.’
    • ‘You really fancy this girl and you know she has a boyfriend, but you have only met him once or twice.’
    • ‘Working on this is something that happens only once in an archaeologist's lifetime.’
    • ‘So maybe it's just fine that we peek out of English and into the rest of the world only once a year or so.’
    • ‘They are huge missiles that should only be used in properly managed public displays.’
    • ‘Besides, most people only hold two cards at any one time so why impose a limit at all.’
    • ‘He has only been to Scotland once before, but to play golf rather than football.’
    • ‘She says they have only met once since, to try to sort out the divorce arrangements.’
    • ‘Some companies, sticking to the rule book, only give notice once every three years.’
    • ‘In two of the cases, he had never met them and in the other had met the girl only once.’
    • ‘I am allowed to get properly drunk once a week but only on a Friday or Saturday.’
    • ‘It is the only one solely dedicated to finding the cause and cure of all kinds of arthritis.’
    • ‘This is just their sixth ever meeting and only once has a match consisted of less then three goals.’
    • ‘If people must have fireworks then they should only be for properly organised displays.’
    • ‘He made the surprising admission, once known only to the cognoscenti, that he was a lawyer.’
    • ‘There was no way of removing the feet at the end of the day without damaging them and so each pair could only be used once.’
    • ‘What was she doing dreaming about a female blogger whose eyes she had only seen once?’
    at most, at best, just, only just, no more than, not more than, as little as
    exclusively, solely, entirely, uniquely, wholly, to the exclusion of everything else
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    1. 1.1 No more than (implying that more was expected); merely.
      ‘deaths from heart disease have only declined by 10 per cent’
      ‘she was still only in her mid thirties’
      • ‘One of the animals shot was a lamb that was only three hours old, along with cows that were in calf.’
      • ‘The Spanish figure of only 100 is hardly credible and should be the stuff of scandal.’
      • ‘He was born with a congenital heart defect which meant he had only half a heart.’
      • ‘Is there a danger we could expect too much of what is, after all, only a five-day event?’
      • ‘However do you expect to r-run an operation as c-complex as this with only a staff of seven?’
      • ‘We are a small special school and a decline in only a small number of children can affect the budget.’
      • ‘Until the 1930s, the life expectancy of a baby with the disease was only a few months.’
      • ‘As a group, the San have declined in numbers and only a very few now live in the Kalahari.’
      • ‘Most jobs were only one or two hours and she was expected to drive her own car between them.’
      • ‘Kenneth is only 17 and was hardly made for the job of shadowing one as elusive as Bellamy.’
      • ‘But this does not imply that the track sprinter can get by with training only a few days a week.’
  • 2No longer ago than.

    ‘genes that were discovered only last year’
    • ‘This was discovered only a fortnight ago by Milngavie Primary School near Glasgow.’
    • ‘The museum itself is built right on the site of a Viking settlement, discovered only a few years ago.’
    at most, at best, just, only just, no more than, not more than, as little as
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    1. 2.1 Not until.
      ‘a final report reached him only on January 15’
      • ‘She became stuck on a narrow ledge and was only rescued after the fire brigade was called out.’
      • ‘He only discovered her duplicity when he found a marriage certificate in her handbag.’
      • ‘However the tickets never arrived and she only discovered she had won when she saw her name in the paper.’
      • ‘I only discovered this disturbing news when we met to talk about her new position.’
      • ‘The company only discovered the mistake when irate bus users rang to complain yesterday.’
      • ‘He used not to have comments, and I only discovered that he'd got them going this week.’
      • ‘His son finds out and it is only at the end of the play we discover the tragedy that results.’
      • ‘The final wreck in our trilogy of paddle steamers has only recently been discovered.’
      • ‘It was only then I discovered they had, in fact, been trying to break into the vestry.’
      • ‘Wei Hui only discovered this when she phoned her publisher to discuss royalties.’
      • ‘The club had an air to it, as though it had only recently discovered the miracle of electricity.’
      • ‘It was only when Tessa, barely out of her teens, was in a car crash that the truth surfaced.’
      • ‘It was only after they had signed up that they discovered they would in fact have to pay for this service.’
      • ‘The two friends only discovered Jake had a painful condition after picking him up in Bolton.’
      • ‘Megson and his advisers only discovered Imerman was involved at the eleventh hour.’
      • ‘She said she had been out all day on Sunday and only discovered what had been going on when she read it in the paper.’
      • ‘However, Heather discovered the present only a couple of days later and unwrapped it.’
      • ‘Police told the court that it was only after close examination that they discovered it was a replica.’
      • ‘It is only later that the investor discovers that the wine is far less valuable than they were led to believe.’
      • ‘Police suspicions were only raised when they discovered he had a travelcard in a third name.’
  • 3with infinitive With the negative or unfortunate result that.

    ‘she turned into the car park, only to find her way blocked’
    • ‘At a barbecue men insist on cooking, only to discover that they're still rubbish at it.’
    • ‘He has often arrived back in Aberdeen at one in the morning only to be on the hospital ward five hours later.’
    • ‘He ran away to become an actor, only to discover there were no acting schools in the city.’
    • ‘I spit the fish out into my hand, only to discover the cracked remains of not one, but both caps.’
    • ‘I went up to my locker, only to discover that the lock was missing and half my books were gone.’
    • ‘Two men wake in a large filthy bathroom only to discover they are chained to opposite walls.’
    • ‘Rivers and lakes can dry up during hot seasons so you can have a great tip only to arrive to find a mud bowl!’
    • ‘The team spent all this time exploring new avenues, only to arrive back at their starting point.’
    • ‘Years later, he tried to call his boyfriend from his home in Oval, only to discover he was in prison.’
    • ‘It was a similar story at St Aidan's where parents arrived at the cordon only to be turned away.’
    • ‘I kicked myself and headed down to the office, only to discover that it was closed for the siesta.’
    • ‘He immediately set off in his car, only to be deliberately driven off the road by another car.’
    • ‘We all rushed for the boat when it arrived only to be told it was going round the lake.’
    • ‘She plucked off her blindfold only to discover the blushing footman she had just embraced!’
    • ‘He said a prototype car had been run round inside the factory only to be destroyed in a fire.’
    • ‘How must it feel to arrive at the door of a country only to find it slammed in your face?’
    • ‘After we went to see a car at the Showroom were I work, only to find another couple looking at it.’
    • ‘My doctor gets miffed when taking my blood pressure only to discover that it is fine.’
    • ‘One day he stole a car, took off and returned only to find the cops were on to his scam.’
    • ‘So then we decided we wanted to see some of the attractions, only to find you had to have a car to do most.’
    1. 3.1with modal In an inevitable but undesirable way.
      ‘rebellion will only bring more unhappiness’
      • ‘If the real problem is not addressed, then the plaster will only hide the rot.’
      • ‘Further delay would only prolong the agony of dozens of families and can have no justification.’
      • ‘If they keep paying Mr Garland the above amount things will only get worse before they get better.’
      • ‘That's the balancing act, and if it's not looked at now, it will only get harder in the long term.’
      • ‘If a man doesn't want to call on Monday, then why make an arrangement to, when it will only be broken?’
      • ‘Continuing to falsely condemn Israel in knee jerk fashion will only hasten that outcome.’
      • ‘Billy finally realises that without massive investment the club will only get worse.’
      • ‘Now Mrs Pratley, a lettings manager, fears it will only be a matter of time before her son has a fall.’
      • ‘Is liberty a price worth paying, for a security that will only fuel our feelings of insecurity?’
      • ‘It will only create more problems, the same ones we have at the Mannington Roundabout.’
      • ‘It will not alter patient care and will only make money for private companies.’
      • ‘I wish I could get her to understand that he will only ever hurt her but she loves him and cannot see the bad in him.’


  • 1attributive Alone of its or their kind; single or solitary.

    ‘the only medal we had ever won’
    ‘he was an only child’
    • ‘The only reason for eating animals and fish is that we wish to indulge our palates.’
    • ‘The sun has set and the only light comes from the weak glow of a solitary lamp at the end of the pier.’
    • ‘It was a single blow to the face that handed Peterhead the only way that anyone was going to score a goal in this game.’
    • ‘The only moments she is alone in the screen are there ones in which we can watch her suffer form abstinence.’
    • ‘Nor should it be forgotten that the only large animal to come across will be Cindy the aged lioness.’
    • ‘The only drawback was the huge noise these animals created, it scared the life out of the baby.’
    • ‘This is not only the best single book on the subject but a model of how military history ought to be written.’
    • ‘However, we are the only animal on this planet that can successfully do all of them.’
    • ‘The only reason animals are allowed to travel so far to slaughter is financial.’
    • ‘So far, it has remained a purely veterinary war and the only casualties are animals.’
    • ‘The only thing left of the organic code will be animals, probably lower animals.’
    • ‘Elephants are the only animals in Africa that dig deep holes in search of water.’
    • ‘The puppy and three cats were the only animals abandoned over the festive period.’
    • ‘My single photograph and Brian's two or three are the only ones we managed to get.’
    • ‘Five years later, he wept as the same pair brought home Britain's only gold in Atlanta.’
    • ‘In all but the simplest animals, the cells of the germ line are the only cells that can give rise to a new organism.’
    • ‘It's always a good sign when you can recognise almost every single track from only one repeat.’
    • ‘As the only rower she was in the single sculls and again won a silver medal.’
    • ‘In fact the only animal that would survive is the pig as it can eat just about anything.’
    • ‘The pair are Britain's best and possibly only hope for a medal in badminton in Athens.’
    sole, single, one, one and only, solitary, lone, unique, only possible, individual, exclusive
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    1. 1.1 Alone deserving consideration.
      ‘it's simply the only place to be seen these days’
      • ‘After some consideration, she decided that her only choice was to report it to the police.’
      • ‘It is not the case that the only alternative to keeping animals in a zoo is euthanasia.’
      • ‘Are High Street dealers tied to a single manufacturer the only place to buy new?’
      • ‘Indeed, it sometimes seems like love stories are the only stories worth telling.’
      • ‘When trying to consider the medium as an artistic one it's really the only factor to be considered.’
      • ‘The sports bits are the only parts of the Today programme worth listening to.’
      • ‘For many years, women considered showing cleavage to be the only way to look sexy.’
      • ‘Are words that say precisely what you want to hear the only way to measure anything?’
      • ‘There will be many who consider that the only fitting punishment for them would be a custodial one.’
      solely, just, uniquely, exclusively
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  • Except that; but.

    ‘he is still a young man, only he seems older because of his careworn expression’
    ‘the place was like school, only better’


The traditional view is that the adverb only should be placed next to the word or words whose meaning it restricts: I have seen him only once rather than I have only seen him once. The argument for this, a topic which has occupied grammarians for more than 200 years, is that if only is not placed correctly the scope or emphasis is wrong, and could even result in ambiguity. But in normal, everyday English, the impulse is to state only as early as possible in the sentence, generally just before the verb. The result is, in fact, hardly ever ambiguous: few native speakers would be confused by the sentence I have only seen him once, and the supposed ‘logical’ sense often emerges only with further clarification, as in I've only seen him once, but I've heard him many times


  • only just

    • 1By a very small margin; almost not.

      ‘the building survived the earthquake, but only just’
      • ‘Get back to water they did, but only just, and Stuart, his men and horses were lucky to escape.’
      • ‘The road has been made so narrow in places that buses and lorries can only just get through.’
      • ‘Even after three days, I'm only just getting the hang of what to look for on the mass of blue below.’
      • ‘With just seconds to spare, Anelka only just escaped a £120 bill and being towed away.’
      • ‘Though only just due to earthquakes and typhoons, but like Gloria Gaynor, we have survived.’
      • ‘The passage here is so narrow that the big male can only just squeeze through.’
      • ‘It might have been spring, but only just barely, and winter was still clinging to the town of Stancorrie.’
      • ‘As recently as 1998 the average house price was only just over four times the cost of a Mondeo.’
      • ‘At the moment I'm earning a very basic wage, only just enough to keep going.’
      • ‘So often you see club golfers arriving in a rush, only just in time for their tee-off.’
      at most, at best, just, only just, no more than, not more than, as little as
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      1. 1.1Very recently.
        ‘I'd only just arrived back from Paris’
        • ‘She has only just arrived for our interview but has been called back to her newspaper with a crisis pending.’
        • ‘I transferred a grand to my UK account recently and it only just put me back in the black.’
        • ‘Most French bombers were still obsolete, and the newer models were only just starting to arrive.’
        • ‘Fr Jim was at home on holidays recently and has only just returned to his Kenyan base.’
        • ‘She added that the report had only just arrived at the department and no decisions had yet been taken.’
        • ‘We had appalling service and replacement kitchen units have only just arrived.’
        • ‘You have only just arrived, and are both tired and are not thinking properly.’
        • ‘Their best and brightest will have either left the cabinet or have only just arrived.’
        • ‘She sounded exhausted, and Liena guessed that, wherever she was, she had only just arrived.’
        • ‘She had only just arrived in this country from Jamaica and was due to start primary school this week.’
        recently, just, just recently, only just, lately, freshly, not long ago, a short time ago, just a short time ago, a moment ago, just a moment ago, only now, of late, new-
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  • only too —

    • Used to emphasize that something is the case to an extreme or regrettable extent.

      ‘you should be only too glad to be rid of him’
      • ‘Agents are only too glad to employ former players for their contacts in the game.’
      • ‘He will be only too glad to hear from you so why not contact the Western People to see what we can do for you.’
      • ‘It is only too convenient to pose for photo opportunities and political points.’
      • ‘The audience liked it and I was flooded with questions which I was only too happy to answer.’
      • ‘As with scores of book-lovers, book sellers are only too happy to carry the credit.’
      • ‘Rebecca seemed only too glad to do so, as she seemed also to want to sit by this newcomer.’
      • ‘The builders are only too happy to tell them what they want to hear.’
      • ‘Being an inveterate gambler, the fourth son was only too glad to accept the offer.’
      • ‘By that time a number of landlords were only too glad to sell up and be expropriated.’
      • ‘You really need to talk with someone about this, and your best friend or favorite sibling will be only too happy to listen.’


Old English ānlic (adjective) (see one, -ly).