Look at these cases:
Nous n'avons qu'une heureWe only have one hour
Je n'ai que des piècesI only have coins
Je n'aime que les pommes.I like only apples.
Tu ne lis que le soir.You read only in the evening.
Notice that to express restriction (only), we use the restrictive structure ne... que.
Though it looks similar to the ne ... pas (not) structure, there are some differences in the way to use it.
Note that ne is always placed in front of the verb.
However, as in English where you can move only in front of the element it's restricting, in French you will place que accordingly:
Il ne mange que des pâtes le samedi.He eats only pasta on Saturdays.
Il ne mange des pâtes que le samedi.He eats pasta only on Saturdays.
The position of the word que can then subtly change the meaning of the sentence (just as the position of only can in English).
You CANNOT place que in front of the verb, so you CANNOT express He only eats pasta on Saturdays.
This statement being ambiguous in English anyway, in French you would have to choose to insist on pasta or Saturdays.
Note: You can also use seulement which means only in French, though it is not as elegant.
J'aime seulement les pommes.I only like apples.
I like only apples.
Tu lis seulement le soir.You only read at night.
You read only at night.
Il mange seulement des pâtes le samedi.He only eats pasta on Saturdays.
See also the compound tenses cases Restrictive ne … que = only (compound tenses)
Want to make sure your French sounds confident?
We’ll map your knowledge and give you free lessons to focus on your
gaps and mistakes. Start your Braimap today »