The word for “only” in Russian has a number of almost synonyms: “только,” ”лишь,” and “единственный.”
The most important differentiator between them is their parts of speech. “Только” and ”лишь” are adverbs; meanwhile, “единственный” is an adjective.
Let’s go through the nuances between the meaning of these words with plenty of example sentences.
“Только” and ”лишь” are two almost synonym adverbs. They both mean “only” or “just” and are largely interchangeable.
That being said, “только” is much more frequently used. Honestly, for beginner and intermediate Russian learners, we’d definitely advise you to just always use “только.” Life will be easier that way. “Лишь” is a bit archaic and bookish today. You’ll see “только” much more commonly all across colloquial, official, and business speech.
Given “только” is such a common word in Russian, we want to make sure you’re aware of most all its uses. We’ve listed different context and important expressions in which “только” is used.
To convey emotions like surprise, admiration, indignation
As a conjunction like “but” or “however”
Almost like saying “if” and replacing “если”
только что = just; just now
Лишь только = only, as soon as
Лишь только когда это будет возможным, обстановка в регионе станет спокойной. = Only when this is possible will the situation in the region become calm.
как только = as soon as
если только = if only, unless, as long as
только бы = if only
только и = the only thing
не только…, но и… = not only... but also...
“Лишь” is much less common than “только,” and tends to be used only in literary or archaic Russian. That being said, when “лишь” is used these days, it is more often than not used in conjunction with “всего” as the phrase “всего лишь” – with the same meaning as “лишь”on its own.
One other point to note is that when “лишь” is used, it tends to almost always be used in negative connotations.
“Единственный” is an adjective that means “only,” and so is used in different contexts to “только” and ”лишь.”
As an adjective, “Единственный” naturally declines according to its gender and case.