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Monday, 2 December 2013

Grammar queries: just

I was asked last week if ‘just’ was acting as a determiner in this sentence and was therefore part of the noun phrase:  But they were just ordinary puddles with nothing in them.

We use adverbials for many different reasons and we typically start off explaining their use to primary children as indicating ‘how’, ‘where’ or ‘when’, perhaps moving on to ‘why’ by upper KS2.  However, use of adverbials in English is far more complicated than that.  For example, we use them to provide viewpoint, focus on a part of a sentence and intensify/emphasize information.

In the sentence above, ‘just’ is acting as an adverbial which focuses the reader on what ‘they’ were: ordinary puddles.  Focusing adverbials can add information or limit information; in our sentence, ‘just’ is limiting what has been said.  ‘They’ and nothing else are ordinary puddles.

One flexible feature of adverbials is that they can often be placed in different positions within a sentence.  Invariably some positions ‘sound’ better than others; they flow more naturally because that is the position in which they usually occur.  Sometimes we alter the positions to create effect for the reader.  In our sentence, it is perhaps possible that we could say ‘But they just were ordinary puddles …’ although I have to say I prefer the first construction. 

Other focusing adverbs which act as limiters and could be used in this sentence are:

  • merely
  • only
  • purely
  • simply

Another feature of focusing adverbs is that they cannot be modified by another adverb, so we couldn’t have ‘very just’ or ‘very only’.

Of course, ‘just’ can be used in other ways as well and the key thing is to look at its role in each individual sentence.

I’ve just realised what you said. (Time adverbial – at this moment)
He had just arrived.  (Time adverbial – at that moment)
He was a just man.  (Adjective – describing the man)

Context is everything!