How to say ONLY in Russian: ТОЛЬКО vs. ЛИШЬ vs. ЕДИНСТВЕННЫЙ

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 vs. ЛИШЬ

“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.

ТОЛЬКО

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.

With nouns

  • У них только молоко в магазине. = They only have milk at the store.

With verbs

  • Я только хочу мороженое = I only want ice cream

With imperatives

  • Только не забудь купить сок. = Only don’t forget to buy juice.

To convey emotions like surprise, admiration, indignation

  • Ты только посмотри! = Just you see!

As a conjunction like “but” or “however”

  • Я бы пошел с вами на пляж, только времени нет. = I would gone with you to the beach, but I don’t have time.

Almost like saying “if” and replacing “если”

  • Я все сделаю, только не злись. = I'll do anything, just don't get mad.

Important expressions with ТОЛЬКО

только что = just; just now

  • Он только что ушëл. = He just left.

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

  • Пусть перезвонит мне как только сможет. = Have him call me back as soon as he gets out.

если только = if only, unless, as long as

  • Должно, если только ради Миши. = It should, if only for the sake of Misha.

только бы = if only

  • Я готов выполнять любую работу, только бы мне платили. = I am ready to do any work, as long as they pay me.

только и = the only thing

  • Мне только и нужно, что гараж для моей машины. = All I need is that garage for my car.

не только…, но и… = not only... but also...

  • Она не только умна, но и красива. = She is not only smart, but also beautiful.

ЛИШЬ

“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.

  • Я всего лишь хочу спать. = I just want to sleep.

One other point to note is that when “лишь” is used, it tends to almost always be used in negative connotations.

  • Ты лишь делаешь хуже. = You’re only making things worse.

ЕДИНСТВЕННЫЙ

“Единственный” is an adjective that means “only,” and so is used in different contexts to “только” and ”лишь.”

  • Саша был единственным, кто выжил в авиакатастрофе. = Sasha was the only person to survive the plane crash
  • Только Саша выжил в авиакатастрофе. = Only Sasha survived the plane crash.

As an adjective, “Единственный” naturally declines according to its gender and case.

  • Супермен единственный человек, который может нам помочь. = Superman is the only person who can help us.
  • Моя сестра единственная пыталась что-то сделать. = My sister is the only one who tried to do something.
  • Единственное, что я сейчас знаю...это то, что это вкусно! = The only thing I know now...is that it's delicious!
  • Они единственные, кто остался там. = They are the only ones left there.
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