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Only If vs. If Only

When we put the two words if and only together, we can build the two phrases, if only and only if: same words, different order, different meanings.

4:06 min read
  Teri Lapping  —  Grammar Tips
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Only If

“You fail only if you stop writing.” -Ray Bradbury

Let’s start our exploration by separating the words only and if.

If is a conjunction that joins phrases together: it means on the condition that, in the event that, allowing that. An example of if in a sentence would be: 

          “The child will be happy if her mom arrives early to the daycare.”

Only is a word that has a few different definitions.

Only can be used as an adverb that tells us about amounts: it means at most, at best, solely. An example of this definition would be: 

          “There were only  15 shopping days left until Christmas.”

Only can be used as an adjective that describes a noun: it means single, exclusive. An example of only used this way would be:

          “He was an only child.’

Only If vs. If Only

Only can be used as a conjunction that joins phrases: it means except, but. An example of only used as a conjunction would be:

          “She was born in the States, only she seemed Spanish because of her accent.” 

Now, let’s puts the two words together to make the phrase only if  and compare the two sentences:  

          “I will take the dog for a walk if  the weather stays sunny.”

          “I will take the dog for a walk only if  the weather stays sunny.”

Only if  is a conjunction which stipulates that what follows is necessarily and true. Its meanings include providing that, assuming that, and as long as.

Sentences with if and sentences with only if  can essentially mean the same thing, but only if  is a stronger phrase; that is, the conditional aspect of the meaning is more emphasized and prominent.

If Only

If only…the saddest words in the English language.”             -Kristan Higgins 

If only, if only, the woodpecker sighs,
The bark on the tree was as soft as the skies.
While the wolf waits below, hungry and lonely,
Crying to the moo-oo-oon, If only, if only."   
         -Louis Sachar

Let’s separate the words. Again, we will start with a basic sentence that uses the word if  without the word only:

If  the woman was rich, she could buy a big house.” 

If  is alerting us that there is a condition to be met. This sentence means, “The woman could buy a big house providing that she had the money.”

If we add the word “onlybefore the word “if”, then we have a created the only if phrase. This means that we wish that something had happened, could happen, or will happen. 

If only the woman was rich, she could buy a big house.”

Here, we have expressed a wish rather than stated a condition. By attaching the word only, an element of wistfulness has been added to the sentence. Now the sentence means, “I wish that I was rich so that I could buy a big house (but it will probably never happen.)”

The phrase if only  has other meanings and uses as well.

 • If only + because is used to give a justification for something (at the same time, possibly implying that the reason is weak):

          “He was excited to go to the movie, if only  because the reviews were controversial.”

 • If only + an infinitive verb means “for no other reason than”:

          “I would call my sister every week, if only  to prevent her from constantly checking up on me.”

The phrase if only can mean “just”:

          “The man acted as the boy’s father, if only  in name.


In parting, let’s consider the covert implications behind the two phrases. 

Take care when you use if only ! Inherent in the phrase is a discontentment with the present moment; it is the opposite of the mindful appreciation of what you already have. “If only  I could be rich…” “If only  I had a beautiful car….” “My life would be better if only  I had….”

As opposed to if only, only if  can be used as a phrase that builds consistency and sets reasonable boundaries. “You can have dessert only if  you eat a bit of your salad.” This phrase can even aspire to save the planet: “The world would be a better place only if  people begin to treat each other with respect and tolerance.”

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