FROM HIEDI

Thanks for your answer on the word "only". I didn't know it was that versatile. It got me thinking about "just". Isn't "just" really a synonym of "only"?

I just wanted to take the ringed snake from the boy for his safety.

RESPONSE

It might seem to be a synonym at first glance, but it isn't really. "Just" can't always substitute for "only" by itself. It sometimes needs help from an article (the, an, a) or a subject and verb. And it can never modify words in front of it like "only" can. How about we substitute "just" in each one of "only" sentences and see how it fares?

1. Just I wanted to take the ringed snake from the boy for his safety.
Meaning: Yeah...could mean the same thing as "only", but it's a real clinker to the ear, isn't it? What's interesting is it sounds OK with a proper name in front of it: Just Sam wanted to take the ringed snake from the boy for his safety. So, pronoun - clinker, proper name - OK...no such distinction with "only". Also, a comma or ellipse after "It's just that" can mean "except", but not "just" alone.

2. I just wanted to take the ringed snake from the boy for his safety.
Meaning: Yep...functions pretty much the same as "only", except "just" cannot modify "I" and mean "alone".

3. I wanted just to take the ringed snake from the boy for his safety.
Meaning: Again, functions pretty much the same as "only".

4. I wanted to take just the ringed snake from the boy for his safety.
Meaning: And once again.

5. I wanted to take the ringed snake just from the boy for his safety.
Meaning: Cannot be an emphasized version of #4, but otherwise, OK.

6. I wanted to take the ringed snake from just the boy for his safety.
Meaning: Same as #5, but with greater emphasis on the boy.

7. I wanted to take the ringed snake from the just boy for his safety.
Meaning: Boom! "Just" switches from an adverb to an adjective. I judged a particular boy to be just for some reason, and I wanted to take the snake from him.

8. I wanted to take the ringed snake from the boy just for his safety.
Meaning: Yeah, same as "only".

9. I wanted to take the ringed snake from the boy for just his safety.
Meaning: Yeah, same as "only". Greater emphasis on his safety.

So there you go. "Just" is as shifty as "only", but not quite as versatile. However, "just" does have a utility unlike "only" - with verbs, it can be used to specify time of action by itself, while "only" needs some help:

I just got up, and now I'm having breakfast.

I only got up five minutes ago, and now I'm having breakfast.

It's probably pretty picky and due mostly to my ear, not any rule, but I typically use "only" for unique things, when there are no other options, and "just" to minimize importance, when there're lots of options. So for a noun:

I want just the girls to leave the room. Others might leave, and I probably wouldn't mind as long as the girls leave.

I want only the girls to leave the room. Nobody else but the girls better leave, buster.

For a verb:

He just kicked the dog and left. He could've done a lot more, but he didn't

He only kicked the dog and left. He came there to kick the dog and nothing else.

For an adjective:

I think just chocolate pudding would be fine for dessert. Instead of an assortment of flavors, but you make up your own mind.

I think only chocolate pudding would be fine for dessert. There is no substitute, and I will have no other.

Anyway...that's "just" about enough, I think.