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First of all, these questions are a bit related but not what I'm actually asking about:

And this answer to the second question as well as its comment does indicate the problem I'm continually encountering.

I tend to overuse the word just. Sometimes I don't even recognize it but if I carefully re-read my English I often find sentences like:

  • I've just implemented the method.
  • I've just eaten an apple.
  • I've just closed my eyes for a few seconds.

The problem is, that in all these sentences I don't want to emphasize that I did that recently, just a couple of seconds/minutes ago, or that it might have any connection to the present, i.e. my present actions, although the action indeed just happened of late (and that's why I use the perfect).

In these cases just is meant to be simply or only:

A: Are you gonna eat with us to lunch now?

B: Sure, I only ate an apple and now I'm really hungry.


A: Are you tired?

B: No, I simply closed my eyes for a few seconds trying to focusing on the issues.

While these two sentences are just examples I invented for this question, the first sentence I introduced above is one of those I actually wrote. Regarding this first example, I consulted an American colleague and asked him how would he interpret the sentence

  • I just implemented the method.

and he answered:

When a native English speaker reads that, they do not understand the 'just' to mean that you recently performed the action - they understand it to me that you 'simply' performed the action. It gives the connotation that you could have done more if you had spent more time on it, but getting it done quickly and easily was more important to you.

So far I'm happy with this answer, but I still have some further questions:

  • How do British natives interpret that, especially when using the perfect?

  • How do you (Briton or American) emphasize the other meaning, i.e.

    • if you understand just as recently do you use only (which sounds somehow awkward to me in sentences in perfect tense) or do you rephrase the sentence as I did with the invented examples, or
    • if you understand just as only how do you then emphasize recently?

The main purpose of this question is to find out if I should put more focus on phrasing these kind of sentences, i.e. using simple past even for an action happened just now when I want to emphasize only, or if I can go ahead using this sentence structure.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

I use just very often in speech and casual writing. I tend to edit it out of more formal writing. I am a native American English speaker from Tampa and Boston.

To me, it can have both meanings, and I don't think that I have a preference. Your examples are all ambiguous to me. I think that the meaning is often clear from context (don't underestimate the power of context!), as in:

1) I'll be there soon. I just woke up. (recently)

2) I didn't call her. I just sent her an email. (merely)

3) I tried, but I just don't understand. (simply)

I don't see how changing tenses or aspects can help you, except that the future and simple present (always?) rule out the recently interpretation. But all of the following are equally ambiguous to me (sans disambiguating context).

4) I [just ate/am just eating/was just eating/have just eaten/etc.] an apple.

When I want to be crystal clear, I just replace just with merely, only, simply, or suchlike. I think that I less often change just to recently. I think I more often say just now to indicate that I mean recently.

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That's just about it. Plus One. –  Kris Aug 23 '12 at 9:57
    
I'm sorry, Rachel, that I am very wary of creating any accounts online - it means I can't add votes for your excellent answer. There seem to be no Anglo-American differences in interpretation here. I even appreciate your double punctuation. I'll add a little in a separate answer, now that you've pinpointed the actual question! –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 23 '12 at 10:00
    
"To me, it can have both meanings..." I just wanted to add: it's not just you, Rachel, it's the dictionary, too. (The word has several meanings, in fact – at least half a dozen, and that's just as an adverb.) –  J.R. Aug 23 '12 at 10:10
1  
It is perhaps worth remarking that in speech the distinction is marked by stress and tone: "I just ate an apple" will be understood as "I have very recently eaten an apple", whereas "I just ate an apple" will be understood as "It's only an apple I ate", not an entire meal, or whatever is being excluded. –  StoneyB Aug 23 '12 at 11:08

Context is very important, as are placement and stress. I am a native Canadian-English speaker, so I don't really know whether there is more of an American or British influence in this case.

Your first three examples, out of context, are ambiguous, but context can be used to suggest a meaning to the reader.

More effective, perhaps, would be to adjust your placement of the word just, as its ambiguity is usually caused by the relationship to the verb or noun of the phrase. This is not specific to the word just, but also occurs in one of your examples using only.

  • I've just eaten an apple.

The intended meaning, I presume, was that you've eaten an apple, and have not eaten anything else. Aside from the 'recently' connotation, this could also mean that the only thing that you have done is to eat an apple, and you have not, for example, gone fishing. An alternative wording could be,

  • I've eaten just an apple.

When a noun follows just (not a verb), it cannot be used to mean recently.

In your example,

B: Sure, I only ate an apple and now I'm really hungry.

the word only is referring to ate an apple but (out of context) could be construed as referring to ate, as in,

I only ate an apple, and did nothing else with it.

The placement could be rearranged to,

I ate only an apple.

Which is still clear out of context.

In another part of your question, you said,

While these two sentences are just examples I invented for this question [...]

The intended meaning was only or simply, but upon first reading it, I thought that the implication was fairness or justice. This is another unintended ambiguity which is solved by context, but brings up stress.

It was the italics that put the stress on just into my head, effectively changing the way that I interpreted the written intonation of the sentence. When speaking aloud, it is easy to emphasize examples or an apple and often this is enough for the listener to understand since the alternative meanings would stress just. In casual or creative writing, italics can be used to create this effect, but for formal use, another method of disambiguation would have to be used.

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Interesting. I haven't noticed the ambiguities you mentioned. All in all a helpful answer. :) –  Em1 Aug 23 '12 at 21:22
    
'I ate just/only an apple' is clear, but it sounds a bit unusual to me. –  krubo Aug 24 '12 at 3:54

I disagree with your colleague, I interpreted all three of your example sentences as meaning "just now" when I first read them. I think all three should be replaced with the word "only" to remove ambiguity. Of course, as Rachel says, often context will remove the ambiguity.

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I've studied the various senses of these tricky modifiers like only, just, merely, nearly, and even. They can appear before noun groups, quantifiers, prepositional phrases and adjectives, when I hate their classification as 'adverbs'. For the non-adjectival senses in which just is used:

just

3.adv.

  1. Precisely; exactly: just enough salt; that’s just what I was about to say.

  2. Only a moment ago: He(/s) just arrived.

  3. By a narrow margin; barely: just missed being hit; just caught the bus before it pulled away.

  4. At a little distance: just down the road.

  5. Merely; only: just a scratch.

  6. Simply; certainly: It's just beautiful!

  7. Perhaps; possibly (connotes wryly and with deliberation coming to a decision): I just may go.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition [augmented]

just

adv

  1. used with forms of have to indicate an action performed in the very recent past: I have just closed the door

  2. at this very instant: he's just coming in to land

  3. no more than; merely; only: just an ordinary car

  4. exactly; precisely: that's just what I mean

  5. by a small margin; barely: he just got there in time

6a. (discourse marker - intensifier) simply; really: it's just wonderful to see you

6b. (discourse marker – intensifier and conveyor of surprise, shock) believe it or not: she just upped (sticks) and left/walked out; he just upped and died (cf he’s only gone and dropped dead!)

(7.) (Informal) indeed; with a vengeance: isn't it just

(Collins English Dictionary) [augmented]

As Rachel says, context is very important in deciding which sense is intended. Intonation with spoken occurrences can help. Positioning within the sentence is critical - the 'misplaced modifier' is infamous. And if none of these removes the ambiguity, a rephrasing is necessary. Of course, ambiguity is sometimes in the ear of the listener.

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