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The Wikipedia article on German modal particles has the following example with translation:

Ich verleihe kein Geld, das zerstört ja nur Freundschaften. -- "I never lend money. Everyone knows that only destroys friendships."

The English is ambiguous, but that's ok because it would be awkward to make the meaning precise and the intent is obvious. Specifically, there are three interpretations:
a) The only thing that lending money might destroy is a friendship.
b) The only thing that lending money might do to a friendship is destroy it.
c) (The intended meaning.) The only thing that lending money might do at all is to destroy a friendship.

My problem is that since nur comes before Freundschaften, and going by the rule that modifiers come before the thing they modify in German, it sounds to me like only the (a) interpretation is possible with the German version. With that in mind, it seems to be that a better translation would be to put the nur at the end:

Ich verleihe kein Geld, das zerstört ja Freundschaften nur.

This just seems wrong to me somehow, but if so then I don't know why. Another possibility is to move the nur to the front:

Ich verleihe kein Geld, nur zerstört ja das Freundschaften.

But this seems awkward in general and may be placing undue emphasis on nur. Maybe a conjunction would help:

Ich verleihe kein Geld, weil es Freundschaften nur zerstört.

Now the only possible meaning is (b), though. Also I don't know where to put ja now and that's the whole point of the example.

So the main question is, in a sentence where nur can be applied to the verb, a noun, or both at once, where you position it to make the meaning clear, or at least not incorrect?

This question seems similar, but it that case it was more about where to put the nur with a conditional, and in this case there is no conditional.

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Ich verleihe kein Geld, das zerstört ja nur Freundschaften.

All three interpretations (a b c) that you give for the English version are also possible for the German version. There's no good way to know which one is meant except looking for the most semantically probable. If it's spoken, you can listen to the emphasis for a clue.

You're right of course about the general rule that "nur" normally comes before the thing that it refers to, but in this case having the "ja nur" together seems natural, so this is just the natural position for the "nur" in the sentence.

Your second idea:

Ich verleihe kein Geld, das zerstört ja Freundschaften nur.

... is actually a perfect way to put it and clearer than the first one, because it limits the possible meaning to (b). The only slightly "unnatural" thing about it is that ja and nur are separated, but that's fine, you can definitely say or write that.

You could also say (with the same meaning):

Ich verleihe kein Geld, das zerstört Freundschaften ja nur.

Your third variation:

Ich verleihe kein Geld, nur zerstört ja das Freundschaften.

doesn't work, because the "nur" gets a whole different meaning when you put it in the beginning. It then becomes a conjunction with the meaning of "though", which totally changes the relation between the sentences. In this case you're basically saying that you're not lending money although that (= not lending money) destroys friendships.

If you want be more explicit and use "weil", you can say:

Ich verleihe kein Geld, weil das ja nur Freundschaften zerstört. (= meanings a or c )

or

Ich verleihe kein Geld, weil das Freundschaften ja nur zerstört. (= meaning b)

or

Ich verleihe kein Geld, weil das ja Freundschaften nur zerstört. (= meaning b, the ja is a bit more emphasized)

I think it isn't possible so say it in a way that can only mean (c) withount making it longer, like

Ich verleihe kein Geld, weil das nur eins bewirkt, nämlich Freundschaften zu zerstören.

My general rule for the position of the "ja" would be to put the "ja" (or other Modalpartikel) just before other adverbs like "nur". You can place an object between them if you want, but the Modalpartikel always comes first.

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  • Thanks. Per Hubert Schölnast there is a d) where the nur is a modal particle, yikes! I didn't realize nur could be a conjunction; it's common to use "only" that way in British English but as a American it's not something that immediately comes to mind. I guess the rule about nur coming before the thing it modifies is one of those "student rules"; it's never wrong to follow it so follow it to the letter it you're a learner, but at the same time native speakers do tend to ignore it occasionally. – RDBury Nov 7 '20 at 7:04
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The word "nur" in this sentence is a modal particle. It is quite common to have two modal particles in sequence:

Er ist aber auch ziemlich dämlich.
Das ist nun mal so.
Du hast ja gar nichts an!
Das ist doch bitte unerhört!

and also

Ich mein' ja nur.
Ich träum' ja nur.

Also very common is this construction:

Jemand vermeidet etwas, denn das würde ja nur zu negativen Folgen führen.
Someone avoids something, because that would just/only/merely lead to negative consequences.

And you sentence fits perfectly into this pattern.

Ich verleihe kein Geld, das zerstört ja nur Freundschaften.
I do not lend money, that just destroys friendships.

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  • Not the answer I was expecting. I knew that nur can be a modal particle, in fact I ran into it yesterday: Wer war nur der seltsame Typ?. But I interpreted nur literally here, and I interpreted "only", which has a modal function in English, literally in the English version as well. Regardless, the basic question is still unanswered. Ich esse nur Kuchen. vs. Ich esse Kuchen nur. vs. Nur esse ich Kuchen. – RDBury Nov 5 '20 at 9:15
  • PS. I went ahead and replaced the example in Wikipedia; if it's one of those rabbit-duck/Hase-Ente situations then it shouldn't be used as an example anyway. – RDBury Nov 5 '20 at 9:42
  • @RDBury: I added translations. I hope it becomes clearer now. In your question and in your comments you always interpret "nur" as if it was a focus particle. But here it is not a focus particle. It is a modal particle. Here "nur" does NOT mean "exclusively", "alone", "isolated", ... These are meanings of the focus particle and all of them would influence the proposition of a sentence. (The proposition is what makes a sentence true or false.) But modal particles have no influence on the proposition. They just influence the mood and this is what makes modal particles so hard to translate. – Hubert Schölnast Nov 5 '20 at 11:03
  • The answer was already pretty clear, but I don't agree with your interpretation of the sentences, at least not the English version. The fact that the English and German were supposed to mean the same thing, but have such widely differing interpretations is already problematic for an example. But the main issue for me is not whether nur is a modal particle, but where it should placed when it isn't one. See the examples with cake in my earlier comment. – RDBury Nov 6 '20 at 7:25

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