Five Ways of Saying "Only"

"Only" might seem like a pretty lonely word, but there are actually several different ways of saying it in French: the adjectives seul(e) and unique, the adverb seulement and uniquement, and the verb phrase ne... que.

First let’s take a look at the words seul(e) and seulement:

Parce que le mardi, c’est le seul jour où je ne travaille pas.

Because Tuesday is the only day when I don’t work.

Cap. 10, Fred et Miami Catamarans: Fred et sa vie à Miami

Aussi je vais dire seulement trois choses.

Also I am only going to say three things.

Cap. 10, Le Journal: Joëlle Aubron libérée

Seulement is the adverbial form of the adjective seul(e), which has another similar (and sadder!) meaning as well:

Alors je me retrouve un petit peu seul en ce moment. 

So I find myself a little alone right now.

Cap. 5, Hugo Bonneville: Gagner sa vie 

Some other ways of saying "alone" or "lonely" are solitaire and isolé(e).

And seulement has some additional meanings of its own. It can be used to express a regret ("if only...") and to mean "however":

Si seulement je l'avais su avant. 

If only I had known before.

Il veut venir, seulement il ne peut pas.

He wants to come, however he can't. 

Although unique and uniquement are most directly translated as "unique" and "uniquely," they can also mean "only":

Je suis un enfant unique.

I am an only child. 

Ce que l’on demande, c’est d’avoir uniquement la photo de l’animal.

What we’re asking is to have only the photo of the animal.

Cap. 17, Grand Lille TV: Des photos contre l’abandon des animaux 

Now let’s look at a bit more complicated way of saying "only": the verb phrase ne... que. As you might have guessed, ne... que is a negative construction, as in ne... pas (not), ne... personne (no one), and ne... rien (nothing). In these constructions, the two components go on either side of the verb:

Il ne mesure que soixante-dix mètres carrés.

It only measures seventy square meters.

Cap. 8, Voyage dans Paris: Saint-Germain-des-Prés

Moi, je ne parlais que français.

Me, I spoke only French.

Cap. 9, Annie Chartrand: Grandir bilingue 

Most of the time, ne... que can be replaced with seulement:

Il mesure seulement soixante-dix mètres carrés.

It only measures seventy square meters.

Moi, je parlais seulement français.

Me, I spoke only French. 

Sometimes, que can mean "only" outside of the ne... que construction. For example, in an interview with Le Figaro, A-lister Ashton Kutcher laments being typecast as a jokester, declaring: "Je ne suis pas qu’un clown!" (I’m not only a clown!)

The ne in this sentence goes with pas (not), while the que stands on its own to mean "only." Ashton (or his translator) could just as well have said, Je ne suis pas seulement un clown! 

Maybe the former "Punk’d" star can shed his clownish reputation by undertaking some serious French studies at Yabla French! Since he’s known to be an avid tweeter, he might want to start by following us on Twitter @Yabla. And you should follow us too!  

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