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"If you would just listen for a moment…"

"If you would listen just for a moment…"

Subtly different meanings, but in both cases 'just' is adverbial. In the first sentence, 'just' modifies listen. In the second, I think the whole phrase 'just for a moment' is adverbial, but no matter. 'Just' is moving around as you would expect from an adverb.

But what about "If you would listen for just a moment…"

'Just' is no longer modifying 'listen'. It isn't behaving like an adjective, it doesn't really modify 'a moment'. Yes, we can call it an adverb, given that 'adverb' is a bit of a catch-all category. But what is it really, what is it doing, what is it modifying? It doesn't really modify anything specific, it modifies the whole situation. It's more like a kind of intensifier or attitudinal word.

Does someone have a clear grammatical or linguistic analysis of this situation?

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'Just' is no longer modifying 'listen'. It isn't behaving like an adjective, it doesn't really modify 'a moment'. Yes, we can call it an adverb, given that 'adverb' is a bit of a catch-all category. But what is it really, what is it doing, what is it modifying? It doesn't really modify anything specific, it modifies the whole situation. It's more like a kind of intensifier or attitudinal word.

That's not quite right, but I think I see what you're getting at.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) treats just as an adverb, and says that it functions in this case as a "focusing modifier", meaning that it applies semantically to an element that's then called the "focus". This may be what's leading you astray; in an example like "I just need one of them", just is syntactically modifying the verb phrase "need one of them", but semantically it clearly applies only to "one of them" or "one". Your example isn't a very compelling one IMHO — I think that "a moment" is both the (syntactic) head and the (semantic) focus — but I guess you're interpreting the focus to be "you would listen for a moment"?

Incidentally, the CGEL points out that although focusing modifiers can modify complete noun phrases, as in "just a moment", they can't modify a noun or nominal that's only part of a noun phrase, as in *"a just moment". This helps justify the "adverb" classification. (Of course, there's also an adjective just meaning "fair", and "a just moment" is possible with that sense.)

(Source: the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, chapter 6, §7.3 "Focusing modifiers", pp. 586–7.)

  • What other focusing modifiers does the CGEL list? – Dunsanist Jan 9 '17 at 10:21
  • And semantically, I would struggle to define 'just'. It doesn't have the same sense as 'only', although it is close. It has the sense of 'it's not that hard' or 'it's a trivial thing' and often 'what's your problem?' but all the dictionary definitions I looked up fall short. (But maybe it's the 'If you would just' combination that gives this sense.) – Dunsanist Jan 9 '17 at 10:30
  • Re: "What other focusing modifiers does the CGEL list?": Alone, also, as well, but, even, exactly, exclusively, in addition, merely, only, precisely, purely, simply, solely, and too. Per CGEL, all of these are adverbs, except for in addition, which is a prepositional phrase. It lists the majority of these as "restrictive" focusing modifiers on page 587; it lists the rest as "additive" focusing modifiers on page 592. – ruakh Jan 22 '17 at 18:00
  • Not 'actually'? As in, "Actually, I think I know the answer". Or is 'actually' here something different again? – Dunsanist Jan 31 '17 at 3:01
  • @Dunsanist: It doesn't list actually, though it also doesn't promise that its list is complete. FWIW, actually seems no different to me than any other sentence adverb -- honestly, frankly, currently, seemingly, fortunately, etc., etc. – ruakh Jan 31 '17 at 5:28

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