Is this context sentence actually a negative?

Hey all,

I was reading the context sentences for 三人, and one of them is,

There were only two or three people in the river.

This sentence ends with “いませんでした”, which I’ve only ever seen used as negative past tense, but the sentence itself isn’t a negative.

Does this sentence more literally translate to “there were not more than two or three people in the river”, or is there something I’m missing/misreading? I’ve only had about 1.5 semesters of study, so I just can’t tell if this is an odd grammar nuance or what. :sweat_smile:



I’m just a beginner too but my understanding is the following: unlike だけ, you only ever use しか in negative sentences and it also has a slightly different nuance. And yes, I think that literal “there’s nothing else” translation describes it well.

I’m not good at explaining this. But here are links that you might find helpful:しか-だけ-shika-dake/


You could think of it as “there weren’t but two or three people”, though it’s probably better to not try to force an English equivalent.

Basically, shika is like “nothing but”, and is used only with a negative verb. You’ll encounter similar negative-paired words in Japanese.


‘Only’ is treated as a negative in several languages, with Japanese and French being two I can name off the top of my head.

I’m sure irrelephant’s sources clarified perfectly well, but in case you want another source here’s what Genki has to say about it. It also shows how to say the “opposite” of しか using も:

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Thank you so much for the links! I’ve read through them, and that’s definitely helped make sense of it all for me. I appreciate that.

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This is Genki II, I take it? I did like the first book, it was always really concise and to the point. Thanks for the assist!

No problem! And yes Genki 2. Chapter 14

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