More on だけ

Quick follow-up on my newsletter from last month about the particle だけ (dake).

I mostly discussed the non-“only” meaning of the word, which can be replaced with くらい (kurai) or ほど (hodo), but I do want to mention an aspect of the “only” だけ that I think is subtle and takes a while to fully digest.

And that point is this: だけ does not imply any value judgement or evaluation. I think in effect this means that, on its own, だけ doesn’t inherently express “merely X”/“no more than X.” It’s a more objective delineater…perhaps closer to “exclusively.”

There isn’t much out there about this particular aspect. The closest I can find is this JLPT website, which compares the usages of だけ and にすぎない (ni suginai, no more than/merely). Take a look:

– 「~にすぎない」と置き換え可能。(例)ちょっと手伝った(〇だけだ 〇にすぎない)よ。

– 名詞の場合は、置き換え不可。(例)アルバイトの給料は、ほんの3万円(×だけだ 〇にすぎない)。

– 「~にすぎない」との違いは、「~だけだ」は話者のつまらない・価値が低いという気持ちを含まない。

But let’s look at the example sentences provided in the first point; I think there’s a slight difference:

ちょっと手伝っただけだよ。 (I only helped a little.)

ちょっと手伝ったにすぎないよ。(I did nothing more than help a little.)

The second point is really critical. This is an unnatural sentence: アルバイトの給料は、ほんの3万円だけだ —> You can’t use だけ to say “I only earn 30,000 yen at my job.” Because it has that evaluation/value judgement aspect, you have to use すぎない.

This is made clear in the third point, the critical part of which I bolded above.

So it’s worth being careful with your だけs. I’ll report back if I can think up any other examples. For now, I think it’s worth mentally substituting “exclusively” for “only” to test the implication of a sentence.

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