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When speaking of something done by somebody, can I say "She just did that." to mean "She only did that." (i.e. she didn't do anything else)?

I am asking because in Italian I can use the same word where English uses only and just. What would change is the position of the word. (Compare lo ha appena fatto with ha fatto appena quello.)

  • kiam, there is something wrong in "What would change is the position of the word." What did you mean? – user114 Mar 8 '13 at 18:32
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    @Carlo That sentence is fine. It can be paraphrased as "The position of the word is what would change.", though the emphasis is slightly different. – snailboat Mar 8 '13 at 19:15
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Yes, you can say something like...

"She just washed the dishes"

...but what exactly you mean is entirely context-dependent - you could continue with either of...

1: ...but she didn't dry them and put them away.
2: ...a few minutes ago.

Outside of context there's not normally any way to establish whether just means only a little while ago or only that and nothing else.


Regarding OP's secondary question about the meaning being affected by word position...

"She washed just the dishes"

...could only mean only/nothing but the dishes (she didn't wash the pots and pans). But so far as I can see this doesn't lead us to any useful general principle, given that...

3: "I just found out this morning."
and
4: "I found out just this morning."

...effectively mean exactly the same in most contexts (contrary to what might have been expected, I didn't know [whatever] until this morning). But there is a case for saying #3 is more suitable when emphasising that [whatever] is some piece of trivial information you happened to come across, and #4 fits better when you want to emphasise how recently you discovered whatever it was.

To summarise: for any given context, the position of "just" might affect meaning (subtly or decisively), but it's not obvious to me this leads to any useful general principles. In essence, "context is everything".

  • I would say 2 is the default interpretation (occurs when the statement is context-free), and context can potentially change it to 1. Because of this, just can't always replace only, which can express 1 without context. – snailboat Mar 8 '13 at 18:21
  • @snailplane: I don't necessarily have an opinion on which is the "default" - I'm just saying that it could be either, depending on context. Which example incidentally leads me to suspect that when coupled with a present tense verb, only might well be the "default". That's enough messing about; the truth is I don't think it's meaningful to talk about a default in the first place. In almost all real-world contexts it's obviously one meaning or the other, and it's largely irrelevant to debate which sense actually occurs "more often". – FumbleFingers Mar 8 '13 at 19:57
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    I said nothing about which occurs "more often". I defined "default interpretation" parenthetically as "occurs when the statement is context-free". – snailboat Mar 8 '13 at 19:59
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    @snailplane: oic. Well I suppose (for this particular word, at least) I guess we just have to agree to differ. I think it makes no more sense to speak of a "default interpretation" for just than it does for, say, set or him. The former mainly because it has so many meanings, the latter because it has no real meaning out of context. – FumbleFingers Mar 8 '13 at 21:31
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    I dunno. Even if you say "She just washed the dishes, not the pots and pans", I will first try to parse it as "just now" (so the sentence is emphasizing that what she washed just now was the dishes, not the pots and pans). If I unequivocally want to imply "only", I'll use that word (or "merely", or some other word that can't mean anything time-related). – Martha Mar 8 '13 at 22:59

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