I don't understand the meaning of "just" in these sentences



  1. Son: You never like any of my friend.
    Mother: Buddy, I'm just looking out for you.

  2. In a restaurant. son with his friends runs into his father.
    Son: What are you doing here? Father: I'm just getting a drink while Mary do shopping.
    Son's friends: Well, please join us.
    Father: No, I don't want to intrude. I'm just gonna watch the game at the bar. Son: He just wants to watch the game at the bar.

  3. In a shop.
    A: Can I help you?
    B: No It's all right, thanks. I'm just looking.

Why do we have "just" in these sentences?

I think that "just" in this situaton has the same meaning as "only" (not involving anything more than the thing that you are mentioning), but there is a website that says "If you say that you are just doing something, you mean that you are doing it now and will finish it very soon." That confuses me.


Posted 2014-07-12T04:37:58.227

Reputation: 71



"Just" can act as an informal synonym to "only." You were right with that. For instance,

  1. I'm only looking out for you. I'm not trying to ruin your life.
  2. I'm only getting a drink. Not avoiding anyone.
  3. I'm only looking around. I don't need any help.

It can also be a synonym for "simply" in some cases. I've alluded to that in the comments, but it's worth bringing up explicitly. You could just as easily replace any of the *only*s in the above examples with "simply." You can use "just" to mean you're almost done ("just about done"). But these cases are a bit different from that.

I suspect the website is referring to something like this,

Person 1: Are you coming?
Person 2: Yeah, I'm just finishing a couple things up first.

That's the same as "only" here. "I'm only finishing this up, nothing more. So I'll be done soon."


On the other hand, as you just brought up in a comment, we can also say things like "maybe you should just go back to college." In a case like this, "just" is effectively meaningless. It's used to exaggerate the point. It's similar to "just about done" as was brought up earlier in this post--I can say "I'll be right there, I'm just about done," but that means pretty well the same thing, denotatively at least, as "I'll be right there. I'm about done." The daughter of your example could say "...maybe you should go back to college," but that just doesn't carry the same metaphorical punch as saying "maybe you should just go back to college." In other words, it makes the comment more serious and for lack of a better word, sassy. It gives the impression of severity.

Edit 2 (thanks wordsmythe):

"Just" can also be a relative term, denoting the choice or an acquiescence in favor of the simpler/easier option. In the case of "I'm just going to watch the game from home," "just" implies that there's another option available to do something more complicated or demanding than staying home (e.g., attending a party or going to a bar to watch the game). In the case of "Why don't you just go back to college" (see comments), there is an implication that the "you" might have a simpler or easier time going back to college rather than convincing the child that college is worthwhile. (Or perhaps that the speaker/child would have an easier time that way.)

Edit 3:

This is with reference to a comment...

  1. "I just want..." -- This could be reworded in most cases as "I only want." You might say "I just want water" to a waiter, indicating in an informal way that you don't want soda. You could also take a more dramatic spin and say something like "I just want you to trust me!" In that case, it's emphasizing how easy the task is. In other words, "I only want you to trust me. Is that so much to ask?"
  2. "I just don't understand it" -- Here, and someone else might have a better, more technical explanation to this than I, it's mostly just, again, a way of emphasizing the point. "I just don't understand it" indicates a more, I hesitate to use this word, but an aggressive tone. It shows some frustration. The word "just" here doesn't really mean anything, it mostly just helps convey a certain tone. You could also substitute "really" here.
  3. "I just can't believe that ..." -- This is similar to the previous two. It's emphasizing the point. You could also say "I really can't believe that...."
  4. "I just don't get it" -- This is the same in every way to the "...understand it" case, even in meaning.
  5. "He just doesn't understand it" -- Same thing here, changing the subject doesn't change the meaning. "He just doesn't understand it. No matter what I do." Just to add to the confusion, you could also say "he really just doesn't understand it." That's just that much more emphasized.
  6. "I can't just..." -- "I can't just leave school to join the circus" (first example that popped into my head). Yet again, mostly emphasis. Here, it's emphasizing the outrageous nature of the request. "What? You want me to do that?! I can't just do that." I suppose you could take it as a sarcastic approach at the same kind of making-light nature we discussed earlier. "I'm just gonna watch a game first" is playing into the light-heartedness of the word, whereas "I can't just" is playing against it.
  7. "I just can't..." -- Same as the last one, although you could also take this to be extra emphasis in a different way. "I just [dramatic pause] can't!" Again, it really doesn't mean all that much extra, at least in a denotative way. It's just a way to enhance the phrase and make it seem more severe.

As for your point about how it can mean "only" or "really," I don't really have a rule-of-thumb to discern the intended meaning. Much of it is in the context or tone. In most cases, though, it doesn't really matter. I hate to say that, since it's a frustrating answer, but for the most part the ambiguities can be resolved through either context or ignorance. For the most part, though, just test which makes more sense. "I'm just gonna watch the game," does "I'm really gonna watch the game" make more sense, or "only?" I'd say "only." "He's just so frustrating:" "He's really so frustrating," or "He's only so frustrating?" Probably the first one. I'll try and think up a better answer for that, but yeah.

Matthew Haugen

Posted 2014-07-12T04:37:58.227

Reputation: 1 301

How is "I'm just gonna watch the game at the bar." different from "I'm gonna watch the game at the bar"? – None – 2014-07-12T05:35:26.380

The difference is mostly in connotation. "I'm just gonna watch the game at the bar" sounds a bit more rushed and down-plays the severity of it. It also somewhat implies that you'll be back right after it. Saying "I'm gonna watch the game at the bar" leaves it a bit open-ended. You might do something afterward. – Matthew Haugen – 2014-07-12T05:39:26.793

How is " He just wants to watch the game at the bar" different from "He wants to watch the game at the bar"? – None – 2014-07-12T06:00:20.343

@sit My apologies. I didn't see this comment when you made it. Please tag me so I am notified. But anyways, it's the same kind of deal here. "He only wants to watch a game at the bar," then he'll be back home. "He wants to watch a game at the bar," then he may or may not come right back. – Matthew Haugen – 2014-07-12T18:17:25.550

If a mother wants her daugther to get into college but her daughter don't want. Her mother says about benefits of college. Suddenly, her daughter says "Geez,maybe you should just go back to college." In this context,I think that "just" doesn't mean "only" but I don't know its meaning. Thank you for helping me. – Sit – 2014-07-13T18:18:48.143

@sit that's an interesting one. I agree that it doesn't mean "only" here. I will modify my answer to cover that case as well. – Matthew Haugen – 2014-07-13T20:05:23.723

1(Also, @sit, if my answer has helped you could you accept it as the answer? I hate to ask, it's just (there's that word again :) ) that it's still in the unanswered queue. I can certainly continue to help you after that as well.) – Matthew Haugen – 2014-07-13T20:12:31.413

Good point. I guess I forgot this is an English Learners site. My apologies. :). I'll fix it to be something a little more clear. – Matthew Haugen – 2014-07-14T07:42:30.987

What is " the same metaphorical punch" in your paragraph? I don't know its meaning. Thank you:)) – Sit – 2014-07-14T07:44:56.557

I edited my answer. Admittedly I'm having a little trouble putting it to words, but I'm trying. – Matthew Haugen – 2014-07-14T07:50:40.653

@sit I see you deleted your comment before I published my edits, but I did add in the cases you had mentioned. And it's really no problem, I don't mind trying to help you get this. I'm not the best teacher, though. I'm pretty new to the ESL world as well, although I'm coming in as a native speaker. :) – Matthew Haugen – 2014-07-15T10:23:24.387

I'm so sorry to disturb you again. You mean "maybe you should just go back to college" is more severe than "maybe you should go back to college"? By the way,"I just want..." "I just can't believe that ..." "I just don't understand it" "You just don't get it!" "He just doesn't understand it" "You can't just..." "You just can't..." Can I use "really" instead of "just" in these sentence? I'm very confused. sometimes "just" means "really" but sometimes "just" means "only". So,How do we know? – Sit – 2014-07-15T10:30:02.450

I'm very grateful for your help. – Sit – 2014-07-15T11:04:42.613

@sit it's no problem. I just wish I knew how to explain this stuff better. May I ask, what is your native language? I'm just curious. – Matthew Haugen – 2014-07-15T11:05:18.953

My native language is Thai. – Sit – 2014-07-15T11:08:18.937



Usually this word is somewhat synonymous with only.

I'm just joking.

I'm only joking.

The difference is that just is informal while only is more formal.

The second use of the word just is synonymous with the word simply

What are you doing? I'm just brushing my teeth.


What are you doing? I'm simply brushing my teeth.

Just is a way to imply a single action..

I'm just eating a bowl a cereal

would be

I'm only eating a bowl of cereal.

The subtle difference between the two is that just is implying something justified It is a way to convey innocence with your action..

Who were you talking to?! It was just Bob.

If you said

It was simply Bob


It was only Bob

They convey no innocence or justification whatsoever.

Furthermore, just has other uses.

The bus just arrived.

This implies an immediate past, nearly present, situation. It can also be said as

The bus just now arrived.

It can also mean exactly, precisely, etcetera.

Wow, an AK47, that's just what I need!


Posted 2014-07-12T04:37:58.227

Reputation: 1 767

I don't understand " "just" is implying something justified It is a way to convey innocence with your action" that you wrote. – Sit – 2014-07-15T08:04:20.583

I don't know, I disagree, although I don't have any facts to back it up. IMO though, justified and innocence go hand and hand.... almost synonymous. – dockeryZ – 2014-07-15T15:21:28.513


In these sentences, just is contrasting someone's intentions with other, unspoken, alternatives.

I'm just looking out for you (and I'm not trying to keep you from having any friends at all).

I'm just gonna get a drink at the bar (and I'd rather not socialize).

I'm just looking (and I don't plan to buy anything).

The Photon

Posted 2014-07-12T04:37:58.227

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