1

I've been taught that "just" is placed before the element it modifies. As in:

Can I use your computer just for a few minutes?

In this case the emphasis is that it will take no longer than a few minutes.

So far, so good.

But then I've come across this sentence:

Can I just use your computer for a few minutes?

I can't make sense of "just" before "use", because nobody would think that you might want to sell, steal or smash my computer, and that you are pointing out that you just want to use it.

Is it the case that "just" still modifies "for a few minutes" though it is "displaced"? Is there any other explanation for the position of "just" in the sentence?

Thank you!

  • The second sentence means the same thing. You could also say "Can I use your computer for just a few minutes?" Note that removing "just" entirely wouldn't really change the meaning, it would just give the question a slightly different feel. – nnnnnn Jun 12 '16 at 11:27
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The second usage of "just" is being used to minimize the request as a whole. In other words, it is saying "what I am asking for is really a small thing and it costs you nothing". It suggest that what the person is asking for is trivial or harmless or costs nothing and therefore there is no reason not to grant the request. Thus, Cyndi Lauper sang "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun".

So in this case it is modifying "use", but not in the sense of "do this thing and no other things" but in the sense of "do this trivial thing that costs you nothing".

1

Actually, that second use of just kind-of is suggesting that they won't do anything else with it (steal, smash, pour drink all over it...). It's almost like they're expecting you to complain, and they're pre-excusing what they're going to do with it. It's what I expect to hear from my teenage daughter...

"D-a-a-d, I just want to use your computer for a few minutes. Is that OK?"
"Sure, go ahead!"
*Several hours later...*

If she'd have said "...for just a few minutes..." then she'd have probably meant it. Of course, she didn't say that! (And I removed all of the ", like," fillers that she'd have used too...)

0

Just

Used to weaken the force of the action expressed by a verb, and so to represent it as unimportant.

1955 E. Tarry Third Door v. 69 We don't want to get you in no trouble with the white folks, but could you just show us how to write a letter?

1995 .net June 77/1 You should be able to view GIF images automatically in all Web browsers by just clicking on the image.

(Oxford English Dictionary)

A synonym would be merely or simply.

Compare Collins COBUILD Advanced Users:

  1. adverb [ADV before v] You use just with instructions, polite requests, or statements of intention, to make your request or statement seem less difficult. [spoken] ⇒ Could you just give us a description of your cat? ⇒ Can you just lift the table for a second? ⇒ I'm just going to ask you a bit more about your father's business. ⇒ Just add water, milk and butter. ⇒ I'd just like to mention that, personally, I don't think it's wise. ⇒ Just wait for me in the lounge.

(Scroll down for source.)

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You use the word just as an adverb in many senses. Among them, you also use it in spoken English for making a request more polite. For example:

Could I just borrow your pen for a minute? (McMillan Dictionary entry #6 under just).

It's in this sense that the OP has used 'just' in the second sentence.

Can I just use your computer for a few minutes?

Besides, the use of 'could' is more appropriate than that of 'can' in this sentence as could makes the request indirect or more polite.

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