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Suppose I have this sentence:

You can only speak to the doctor if you have an appointment

Should I translate it as:

  • Sie können mit dem Arzt nur sprechen, wenn Sie einen Termin haben

or as:

  • Sie können nur mit dem Arzt sprechen, wenn Sie einen Termin haben

Is there any difference? To me, the "nur" should refer to the verb, so I'd rather have it as in the first sentence, directly before the verb. In the second sentence, I feel like the interpretation would be "you can speak only to the doctor (among other people you can speak only to him)", which is not the meaning I want to convey. Is this correct/wrong ?

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Your logic is somewhat flawed, because if you fear that the second one could be interpreted as “you cannot talk to the doctor, but to someone else” then you should also be worried that the first one might be understood as “you cannot talk to the doctor, but you can look at him”. –  Carsten Schultz Jan 30 at 8:41

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

First of all, both sentences are correct and everyone would certainly get what you want to say. I'd also say they have no different meaning and it doesn't really matter where you put the "nur".

However, the meaning of the sentence can change depending on which word you emphasize, just like in English. So if you emphasize the nur ("Sie können nur mit dem Arzt sprechen...") you'll get the meaning you originally wanted (you'll need an appointment if you want to talk to the doctor).

But if you stress the word Arzt ("Sie können nur mit dem Arzt sprechen..."), you'll get what you thought to be the second sentence (if you have an appointment you can only talk to the doctor, and no one else).

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I'd like to add some further hints on this, although Honigkuchenpony and rogermue basically answered the question.

In the first step we remove the subordinate clause.

Sie können mit dem Arzt nur sprechen.
Sie können nur mit dem Arzt sprechen.

The first sentence means: You can only talk to the doctor. Nothing else. It's just about talking.
The second sentence means: You can talk only to the doctor. Nobody else. Just the doctor.

In a second step, you can add some further content, given in a subordinate clause. This may or may not change the meaning.

Sie können mit dem Arzt nur sprechen, er wird ihnen aber nicht helfen. (Same meaning as above.)
Sie können mit dem Arzt nur sprechen, wenn sie einen Termin vereinbart haben. (Different meaning.)
Sie können nur mit dem Arzt sprechen, nicht aber mit der Krankenschwester. (Same meaning.)
Sie können nur mit dem Arzt sprechen, wenn sie einen Termin vereinbart haben. (Different meaning.)

Adding ...wenn sie einen Termin vereinbart haben is possible in both cases and changes the meaning of the stand-alone sentence. In both cases you end up with the same result.
This is possible because nur gets a slightly different meaning when adding this part. It's meaning then is nur dann or nur in dem Fall.

Note the subordinate clause has some power here, as you can even mix up the explanation that fits to the original meanings of the stand-alone sentences.

Sie können mit dem Arzt nur sprechen, nicht aber mit der Krankensprecher.
Sie können nur mit dem Arzt sprechen, er wird ihn aber nicht helfen.

Actually, these sentence are a little semantically odd. However, the first says you can just talk to the doctor but you cannot just talk to the nurse. The latter says the same as the stand-alone sentences but adds a further information which actually has nothing to do with the first part. Probably a dash(–) instead of a comma would make more sense there.

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Both sentences are possible. And at the moment I couldn't tell which one I would prefer. In this case you decide the sense of nur not according to the position of "nur" but according to the context of the whole sentence. It would be for speakers too much analyzing work to decide what in the sentence is limited - so the position doesn't play a role. - But there may be sentences where the position of "nur" really plays a role. But as a mother tongue speaker I have no examples at hand. I place "nur" according to feeling, I don't have any rules in my mind. This may be different for a learner of German. - I think I will study your problem, maybe I find something specialists have found out.

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