a. Alone in kind or class; sole: That's the only pen I have.
b. Having no siblings: an only child.
2. Most suitable of all; superior or excellent: This is the only way to cook a good steak.
1. Without anyone or anything else; alone: We have only two sandwiches left.
a. At the very least: If you would only come home. The story was only too true.
b. And nothing else or more; merely; just: I was only following orders.
3. Exclusively; solely: facts known only to us.
a. In the last analysis or final outcome; inevitably: actions that will only make things worse.
b. With the negative or unfortunate result: received a raise only to be laid off.
a. As recently as: called me only last month.
b. In the immediate past: only just saw them.
1. Were it not that; except that: We would have reached the summit, only the weather got bad.
a. With the restriction that; but: You may go, only be careful.
b. However; and yet: The merchandise is well made, only we can't use it.
Usage Note: The adverb only is notorious for its ability to change the meaning of a sentence depending on its placement. Consider the difference in meaning in the following examples: Dictators respect only force; they are not moved by words. Dictators only respect force; they do not worship it. She picked up the phone only when he entered, not before. She only picked up the phone when he entered; she didn't dial the number. The surest way to prevent readers from misinterpreting only is to place it next to the word or words it modifies. Many usage sticklers view this policy as a rule that should always be followed, but in many cases it sounds more natural for only to come earlier in the sentence, and if the preceding context is sufficiently clear, there is scant likelihood of being misunderstood. Thus, the rule requires We can come to an agreement only if everyone is willing to compromise. But it may sound more natural, with slightly different emphasis and with no risk of misunderstanding, to say We can only come to an agreement if everyone is willing to compromise. · The expression one of the only is sometimes called out for being illogical, as only implies singularity but the noun following it is plural in this construction. The Usage Panel is mixed on the subject. In our 2008 survey, 48 percent accepted the sentence He is one of the only hard-working people left around here. Many panelists may object to the use of the word as an adjective to mean "few" instead of "one" (as in That's the only pen I have left). The expression the only two found more favor, despite its apparent illogic, with 62 percent accepting She is one of the only two writers I can relate to. This is probably because of similarity to the adverbial use of only with two, which is well established and familiar (There are only two seats left). See Usage Note at not.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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