How is only  functioning in these sentences? 

1. “That was the only large t-shirt left in that colour.”

2. “There were only four United fans in the room.”


Last edited by symphony
Original Post

Hello, Symphony,

In (1), only is an adjective, as it precedes the noun "t-shirt" and refers directly to it, not to the existence of only one large t-shirt. Compare with:

3. There was only one large t-shirt left in that color. (Here, "only" is an adverb, as it modifies the numeral "one.")

Likewise, in (2) only is an adverb as it refers to the presence of four fans ("only" modifies "four").

The presence of an article before "only" helps define it as an adjective:

- an only child / the only large t-shirt / the only large t-shirts

In the plural, the presence or absence of an article will determine whether "only" is an adjective or an adverb.

4. Those were the only large t-shirts in that color (adjective).

5. There were only large t-shirts (no small or medium ones) in that color (adverb).

Last edited by Gustavo, Contributor

Gustavo's reply is excellent.  I would like to add a minor historical note.

Six hundred years ago, the word "only" was spelled and pronounced "onely", indicating that it could only refer to something that was unique.  Back then, had the United team existed, one might speak of "the onely United fan", but "onely four United fans" would be self-contradictory.  There was either just one, the "onely one", or there were four (the "fourly four"?  Eek!).


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