In this post I’d like to discuss a few ways in Japanese to express the various shades of meaning of the English word ‘only’.
First, there is だけ which one of the simplest and most common ways of expressing ‘only’ or ‘just’. Let’s see a few examples.
- I was just saying. (this expression can be used when someone asks ‘Why did you say that?’, and there wasn’t a deep meaning behind your words)
- That’s the only thing I don’t want to do. (lit: “It’s only that which I don’t want to do”)
- I was only watching TV.
- Thats all? (lit: “Only that?”, Used when you expected more)
Beware that だけ doesn’t have a very strong sense of ‘only’ by itself. It also has other meanings such as expressing an approximate amount of something, like くらい or ほど.
One way to make the sense of ‘only’ a bit stronger is by using the phrase 〜しか〜ない, which is structurally similar to “~nothing but~” in English. This expression can be a little confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to use.
- There is only 10 dollars. (lit: “There is nothing but 10 dollars”)
- Lately, I’ve only been watching movies.
- Is that all you can do?!
- I have no interesting in anything but Japan.
Figure out the pattern? Basically you need to add しか after the object (and after a particle if present) and then change the associated verb, adjective, or other word, to the negative form.
A related use of this is the phrase 〜するしかない, which means “no choice but” in a dramatic sense.
- I have no choice but to try!
ただ is another word that can be used to mean ‘only’ in two different senses.
First, it can be used to emphasize ‘only’ at the beginning of a sentence, and can be used in conjunction with だけ。
- I was just saying.
- That’s all there is. (lit “It’s only that”)
Second, ただ can be used followed by の to mean ‘merely’ or ‘simply’, as in ‘I’m only a man’.
- He’s just a guy friend.
While we are talking about ただ, I might as well mention another it’s meanings, which is ‘free’ (as in beer). Another way to say this is 無料。
ばかり (sometimes pronounced ばっかり) is yet another Japanese word that can be used to mean ‘only’.
- You’re full of lies! (lit: “all lies”)
If you use this word after a noun or a verb’s て form, you can express that someone is only doing that one thing.
- You’ve been playing games all day today. (lit: “Today you’re only playing games.”)
- That girl just keeps talking. (lit: “That boy/girl is only talking”)
ばかり／ばっかり can also be used express something ‘just’ happened, as in it happened very recently. For this usage, simply put it at the end of a verb in the past tense.
- I just got home now.
Though it’s somewhat formal and I don’t see it too often, for completeness I’ll mention the word のみ, which can also mean ‘only’.
- “Employees only”
“〜に過ぎない” is another expression that roughly translates to ‘only’ or ‘just’, though it’s somewhat formal and I see it mostly in written Japanese.
- He’s only a boy.
過ぎる means ‘to go over’ or ‘exceed’ so this literally means “He does not exceed a boy”. The meaning would be similar to ”彼はただの子供”.
Finally, if you want to say ‘only’ in the sense that there is only one of something, you can use the word 唯一（ゆいつ）.
- I was betrayed by my only friend.