How is the word ‹only› analyzed in English? It seems unusually flexible.

Consider the following few sentences, each of which use the word ‹only›.

  1. Only students read yellow books.
  2. Students are the only readers of yellow books.
  3. Students read only yellow books.
  4. Students only read yellow books.

Sentences (1) and (2) mean the same thing as do (3) and (4). Only appears to function as a determiner phrase in (1) and (3), as an adjective in (2), and as an adverb of some sort in (4). (4) is a bit odd since ‹only› can be interpreted as modifying just the verb rather than the whole predicate in other contexts.

  1. Students only read yellow books; they don't write them.
  2. *Students read only yellow books; they don't write them.
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    Since this question is about a specific word in English, it probably better suited for the English language and usage SE. – lemontree Jul 3 '16 at 20:41
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    @lemontree: Digging a little it seems like a duplicate of this question: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/14467/… . – Gregory Nisbet Jul 3 '16 at 20:45
  • Apart from that: I think that the contrast between 5. and 6. is that the word order in 6. doesn't properly reflect the scope of "only" (it modifies the action and not the object, so it should be placed in front of the verb and not in front of the noun), but this is not necessarily a difference in part of speech. – lemontree Jul 3 '16 at 20:46
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    The syntax and semantics of only are also discussed here. – jlawler Jul 4 '16 at 4:04
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    "Only" is a focusing adverb in all your examples except 2. where it is an adjective. Focusing adverbs can modify virtually every kind of construction, e.g. NPs, PPs, AdjPs, AdvPs, VPs and most clause types. But note that focusing modifiers like "only" modify only NPs (not nouns or nominal). "Readers" is a nominal (the NP is "the readers") so "only" cannot be a focusing adverb; rather it is an adjective. – BillJ Jul 5 '16 at 6:41

I have to agree with Anixx; "only" is an adjective in 2., and an adverb in all other sentences.

The next question would then be, "but are adverbs actually a part of speech, or do we lump several different parts of speech into the category of 'adverb', making it incongruent?"

Only students read yellow books.  - adverb
Students are the only readers of yellow books. - adjective
Students read only yellow books. - adverb
Students only read yellow books. - adverb
  • Why isn't it an adjective in Students read only yellow books? It's only yellow books that they read, after all. – jlawler Jul 4 '16 at 17:12
  • @Anixx You are right, and most perceptive! Focusing adverbs do not modify nouns or nominals (as opposed to NPs). In your second example "readers" is a nominal, (the NP is "the readers") so "only" cannot be a focusing adverb. Instead, it is an adjective as you correctly say. – BillJ Jul 5 '16 at 6:38
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    Answering the question from @jlawler, "yellow books" in the third example is both a NP and an N-bar, so the position of "only" is consistent with it being either an NP modifier (making it an adverb) or an N-bar modifier (making it an adjective). We can tell which one it is by modifying the example by adding a determiner, which will go after an adverb but before an adjective. – Greg Lee Aug 3 '16 at 18:46
  • Also, since yellow is indisputedly an adjective, we would expect its position to be interchangeable with other adjectives: students read pretty yellow books - students read yellow pretty books. This doesn't happen between yellow and only though; students read yellow only books is either agrammatical, or conveys a quite different sense than *students only read yellow books". – Luís Henrique Oct 4 '16 at 10:29

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