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I see that 但 means "only" besides its typical meaning "but". So what is the difference between 但 and 只 and when do you use 但 with the meaning "only"?

1

但 means 'but' ; 'only' ; 'just'

只 means 'only'; 'just'

The difference between the two when they are functioning as 'only/just':

但 is more literary/ classical; 只 is more colloquial/ contemporary

Example:

只看不買 (only look but not buy) - a normal contemporary sentence

但看不買 - it sounds awkward with a classical term mixed in a contemporary sentence

但說無妨 (It is fine, just say it)- a normal classical sentence

只說無妨 - it sounds awkward with a contemporary term mixed in a classical sentence

但 can be short for 但願, but 只 cannot

Example:

但得我一家平安 = only (wish) my family is safe -- 但 here is short for 但願 (only/ just wish)

只得我一家平安 = only my family is safe-- 只 here cannot be short for 只願 (only/ just wish)

In some context. they are interchangeable:

Example:

  • 但求我一家平安 = 只求我一家平安 -- with the verb 求(wish), both 但求 and 只求 mean 'only/ just wish'
1

Let me just supplement Tang Ho's perfect answer with two other examples.

  1. 但願人長久,千里共嬋娟 from the Song poem 水調歌頭, 蘇軾

which means '(I) just wish him (author's brother) a long life, and that we look at the same beautiful moon despite being thousands of miles apart.'

  1. 但得有三餐足夠,為人樂觀好少掛憂 from the Cantonese song 杯酒當歌, 許冠傑

which means 'I just need 3 good meals a day and nothing more. I am optimistic and seldom worried.'

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