Are "just" and "only" interchangeable?


Two days ago, one of my students, Julia, said something that I found a bit puzzling (and somewhat aggravating too!) I had always assumed that when it's possible to use "only" in a sentence, the adverb "just" is also (maybe not always but most of the times) a valid option. Julia told me, however, that when she was speaking to an American lady the other day, the erudite nitpicker frowned upon the use of "just" in a certain sentence. The sentence was something like, "This class is just on Thursday", which sounds fine to me, especially considering my student's amiable attempt to establish a modicum of communication with the American lady, who can't say a word in Portuguese, let alone string a sentence together. The lady rephrased Julia's utterance, emphasizing the necessary change: "Oh, you mean, the class is ONLY on Thursday". As I listened to Julia with interest, the first thing that crossed my befuddled mind was "...hmm..."

.. Hmm indeed! Okay, maybe "just" is the wrong choice after all, but hey lady, and I would add, as we say in Portuguese, "p̫, na boa" Рliterally, "*gee, in the good* ", which roughly means, "excuse me, what I'm about to say is by no means intended to offend you, simply to call your attention, in a good-tempered spirit, but I really have to say it, if only to get if off my chest!") - how dare you speak to Ju like that? Ju is such a nice, and mind you, super clever girl. As a matter of fact, even if she were a complete simpleton, you still shouldn't be so hoity-toity; no one deserves to be treated scornfully! Appearances can be rather deceptive, you know; we all have so much to learn from one another! I'm sure that your great scholarliness notwithstanding, in umpteen ways you're no match for savvy, resourceful Ju! (" Ufa ", I feel better now; in Portuguese, "ufa" functions like a short onomatopoeic word to indicate a sigh of relief; by the way, what is the English equivalent? Does anyone know where on the web I can find a good list of onomatopoeic words in English?)

Well, to cut a long story short, my question is: Is it ever possible in a sentence that has the adverb "only", for it to be replaced with "just"?


São Paulo, Brazil
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Original Post
Yes, it is possible to replace "only" with "just" to mean "only in this case," as in your example sentence: The class is only on Thursday. The sentence could very well be The class is just on Thursday.

One meaning of "just" is "Merely; only: just a scratch*"

The same dictionary defines only in these ways:

1. Without anyone or anything else; alone: room for only one passenger.
a. At the very least: If you would only come home. The story was only too true.
b. And nothing else or more: I only work here.
3. Exclusively; solely: facts known only to us.
a. In the last analysis or final outcome: actions that will only make things worse..
b. With the final result; nevertheless: received a raise only to be laid off..
a. As recently as: called me only last month..
b. In the immediate past: only just saw them. .

In all of the examples above, "just" can be substituted for "only." As stated in A Communicative Grammar of English**: "Other words with a meaning similar to only are just, merely, simply.." Longman English Grammar*** states: "Adverbs such as even, just, merely, only, really and simply can precede the word [or phrase] they qualify to focus attention on it."

The erudite nitpicker is wrong.

*The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Houghton Mifflin Company. 2003
**A Communicative Grammar of the English Language, by Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik. Longman Group Limited. 1975
***Longman English Grammar, by L.G. Alexander. Longman. 1988
What about the following "just"?
It can't be replaced with "only" can it?

A: Oh, what happened, dear? Just tell me.

No, not in an imperative sentence. You are correct.

The sentence would, however, work this way:

If you would just/ only tell me, I'll make everything all right.

"Only" and "just" are not completely interchangeable. There are instances where only (or just) "just" will do, as in your sentence.

While "only" can frequently replace "just," "just" can less frequently replace "only." Of the seven meanings for the adverb "just" in the American Heritage Dictionary*:

1. Precisely; exactly: just enough salt.
2. Only a moment ago: He 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: I just may go.,

"just" can be replaced by "only" in number 5 only.

*The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2003
Last edited by Rachel, Moderator

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