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Only Had, Had Only

Only Had, Had Only
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Hello! This week on Ask a Teacher, we answer a question from Madhur about the usage of “had only” and “only had” in English.



I would like to clear my concept regarding usage of “had only” and “only had” in written English.


Thank you for writing, Madhur. I’m happy to answer this question.

In general, differences in meaning between “had only” and “only had” depend on the situation. And in many cases, there is no difference in meaning between the two.

In spoken English, the tone of voice we use helps make the meaning clear. But without the help of the voice, a writer must write carefully to avoid confusion about “had only” and “only had.”

Let’s look at the usage of these terms with the following three cases.

Case One: the same sentence, two meanings

Consider two situations. In the first, you wanted to give something to drink to five people, but you only had enough to give two people drinks.

In this situation, the sentence “I only had two drinks” means you did not have enough drinks for five people. It expresses the idea that there was a problem.

In the second situation, someone said you drank too much alcohol at a party, but you disagreed. So, you said:

“I only had two drinks.”

In this case, you have expressed the idea that there was not a problem with how much you drank.

So, the same sentence, “I only had two drinks,” can express a problem or the lack of a problem.

The sentence “I only had two drinks”, by itself, without any situation connected to it, is ambiguous. Ambiguous means that something is unclear because it can be understood in more than one way.

Case two: two different sentences, same meaning.

Consider these two sentences:

“We had only one liter of water.”

“We only had one liter of water.”

Each sentence can mean that there is a problem, that we needed more than one liter.

In general, when the adverb “only” follows the verb “had,” the adverb is closer to the object of the sentence and helps show that there is, or might be, a problem.

Case three: two sentences, different meanings

The sentence “We had only one liter of water” usually means that we wanted or needed more water.

On the other hand, “We only had one liter of water,” might mean that there is no problem. For example, if there were 50 liters of water, drinking one liter would usually not be a problem.

The examples from all of the above cases help us see how important it is to explain the situation. That is because “only had” can have two meanings, depending on the situation.

Last, there is another use of “had only” which comes from conditional statements such as the following:

“If I had only been there sooner, I could have seen her.”

Here, the use of “had only” following the word “if” expresses regret.

We hope this explanation helps you, Madhur.

Do you have a question about American English? Send us an email at

And that’s Ask a Teacher.

I’m Andrew Smith.

Andrew Smith wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

absencen. the state of being away; not present

lack ofn phrase. the absence of or not enough of something