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'Just' and 'only' carry a similar meaning, and while my feel for language usually helps me decide which one to use, there are times when I'm at a loss.

From my understanding, 'just' is used as a softener, to add flexibility and politeness. 'Only', on the other hand, is a relatively sharp exclusion. 'Just' also has a wider range of meanings, for instance to denote time.

While this sounds simple enough, it can get messy in practical usage. The sentence that made me stumble was "Not only airports are part of the target customer group, but also other large infrastructures".

Would the meaning of this sentence change when using 'just' instead? The way I see it, there is no difference in this case, except 'just' would make it sound a tad more colloquial.

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Honestly, both of those sentences are grammatically imperfect, but "only" and "just" are interchangeable (except, as you note, that "just" is more colloquial). To improve it, you minimally need a verb in the latter clause ("... other large infrastructures are") but better would be to add some more elaboration ("... other large infrastructures are something.") –  Charles Jun 22 '12 at 14:32
I think the problem with this sentence is "Not only/just airports verb, but also." The "but also" should come right after the "not only". –  Peter Shor Jun 22 '12 at 15:05

2 Answers 2

Just refers to exactness. Only refers to uniqueness. In many cases, they are interchangeable. But not always.

In the phrases not just X … but also Y and not only X … but also Y, we mean that X is incomplete. That is, X is both inexact and non-unique, so either word will do.

On the other hand, we say only child, not ?just child, because we mean the uniqueness, not the exactness, of the child. And we say just deserts, not ?only deserts, because we mean the exactness, not the uniqueness, of the consequence.

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I don't think that's a helpful way to look at it. In "I just don't think it's worth it", where does the exactness come in? And where is the uniqueness in "he's only a child"? By the way, the just in just deserts means "rightful, appropriate" (cf. justice, unjust); obviously there's a historical/etymological connection to the just in just a second, but in modern use they've definitely become two separate senses. –  ruakh Jun 22 '12 at 16:36
I would not say these are separate senses, but broader meanings. The interchangeability of "just" and "only" in some contexts has certainly led to a broadening of the meaning of each one and a not inconsiderable amount of overlap. But their roots are still plainly visible in situations where one is appropriate and the other is not. –  MετάEd Jun 22 '12 at 17:02
"I just don't think" or "I just think" means "this is precisely (exactly) what I am thinking". The speaker is cautioning the listener not to imply any more than what she is saying. The speaker will often clarify what it is that the listener should not imply. For example: "I don't disagree with your point, I just don't think ...", or "I like horses, I just think ...". –  MετάEd Jun 22 '12 at 17:11
Well then, I just disagree. :-) –  ruakh Jun 22 '12 at 18:07
The just in I just don't think it's worth is means not so much exactly/precisely, but simply/certainly. It's assertive; the speaker is certain of the statement made, rather than telling the listener not to read more than there is. –  langtechie Jun 23 '12 at 23:17

There is no difference between "just" and "only" in the context of this sentence.

The problem with this sentence is that neither of the constructions "not just airports" or "not only airports" cannot be used as the subject of a sentence.

*Not just airports are part of the target customer group.

This is a consequence of the fact that "Not airports" cannot be used as the subject of a sentence.

*Not airports are part of the target customer group.

If you want to make your sentence grammatical, there are two ways to do it. You can either move the verb to be after the "but also" clause, or you can put in an "it".

Not only airports, but also other large infrastructures, are part of the target customer group.
It is not only airports that are part of the target customer group, but also other large infrastructures.

In the first case, I think the subject is "other large infrastructures"1, which is a permissible subject. In the second case, the subject is "it".

1 I'm not sure about this; maybe the subject is the entire "not only ... but also ..." clause.

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