The “only” limitation in German is expressed mainly by two words: erst and nur. It is not surprising that with such a close meaning, these words are often confused when used. Let’s try to find the impostor!

Word ERST in German expresses two limitations: 

1. By time (only two days, only three hours, only two years):

  • Meine Frau kommt erst am Freitag – My wife will arrive only on Friday.
  • Ich lerne Deutsch erst zwei Tage –  I have only been learning German for two days.  

2. By the amount of something or someone(nothing more) for a certain period of time. 

  • Magst du das Buch? – Do you like the book?
  • Ich weiß noch nicht. Ich habe erst fünf Seiten dieses Buches gelesen. – I do not know yet, I have read only / yet / no more than five pages of the book.

In this case, it is important to note that the subject intends to continue reading the book further. Therefore, if ERST, is used not with the circumstances of time, but with direct object, it still speaks of temporal growth. 

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The word NUR refers to everything else except time:

  • Ich habe nur 5 Euro. – I have only 5 euros.
  • Das kannst nur du wissen! “ Only you can know that.
  • Sie will nur schlafen – She only wants to sleep. 

If NUR refers to time, then it is especially emphasized that the action or situation will not change (remains static): 

  • Mein Mann geht nur am Samstag zur Konferenz – My husband will go to the conference only on Saturday (it is emphasized that he will go to the conference only for one day out of seven).
  • Sie bleibt nur eine Stunde – She will only stay for an hour (not for two or three, it’s decided)
  • Ich bin müde, deswegen habe ich nur fünf Seiten dieses Buches gelesen – I’m tired, so I only read 5 pages of the book (and I’m not going to read any further). 

Here are some tricky visual examples of the importance of differences between ERST and NUR:
Example 1:  The husband went to a hardware store and disappeared there, his indignant wife calls him with pleas and threats, and in response she hears two options:  

  • Husband 1 – Ich bin in 20 Minuten zu Hause. Ich habe nur 100 Euro ausgegeben. – I’ll be home in 20 minutes. I only spent 100 Euro. 
  • Husband 2 – Ich brauche noch 20 Minuten! Ich habe erst 100 Euro ausgegeben. –  I need another 20 minutes. I spent only 100 Euro more. (The situation continues to evolve and over time he will spend more). 

Obviously, the wife will react differently to different excuses from her husband.

Example 2:  The wife talks to her bestfriend about her husband’s plans. 

  • Wife 1 – Er kommt erst am Dienstag. – He will come only on Tuesday (he will not be there until Tuesday).
  • Wife 2 – Er kommt nur am Dienstag. – He will come only on Tuesday (it is emphasized that he will not be there either on Monday or on Wednesday ) 

In both examples, choosing the right word plays a role;)   For those who have just started to learn German and still do not feel all the subtleties, it is important to learn a simple formula:

For Time → ERST
For Action, Object, Location → NUR

 I would like to add some associations. The word erst is historically cognate with the word zuerst (first), which no doubts belongs to the time, therefore, in order to be less confused, you can remember this: 

erst → (zu)erst → firstly → time

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