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Difference Between: Just vs. Only

Just (dʒʌs) and only (oʊnli) are adverbs (words that change the meaning of a word or phrase). We can use just and only interchangeably when they mean ‘not more than or a small quantity of something’ – e.g. I just have 2 meals a day or I only have 2 meals a day. However, there are some situations where we have to use one word and not the other. Let’s take a look!

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Just or Only?

Just and only can be used in the same way when we mean ‘not more than or a small quantity of something’. Here are some examples:

  • I only have £100 left in my bank account this month (correct).
  • I just have £100 left in my bank account this month (correct).

The difference between them here is that only is slightly more formal than just.

Another time when they are both the same is when they mean ‘merely’ or ‘simply’:

  • Frankie was just joking; she didn’t mean to offend you (correct).
  • Frankie was only joking; she didn’t mean to offend you (correct).

Another meaning is ‘for the sole purpose of something’:

  • Henry only came back to pick up his keys; he didn’t want an argument (correct).
  • Henry just came back to pick up his keys; he didn’t want an argument (correct).

In all these examples, the word position for just and only is the same: before the main verb (the action word) in the sentence – in the above examples: have, joking and came.

We can also use just or only to express desire or regret, but only comes with if (if only), and the word order changes: If only comes at the beginning of the sentence and just stays in the usual position.

  • If only Shane had studied more, he could have passed the exam (correct).
  • If Shane had just studied more, he could have passed the exam (correct).

If just or only mean ‘no more than’, ‘no more important than’, ‘merely’ or ‘for the sole purpose of…”, then you can put them before the action verb in a sentence (and you can use them interchangeably). Use just when you want to be informal and only when you want to be more formal.

Similar sentences, different meanings

Another time we use just is to talk about something ‘immediate’ – e.g. Dad is just cooking the soup now or Kim has just finished her homework. In these sentences, we are using just to connect a present moment to another moment (the present and past) and we want to stress this connection.

We cannot use only to express this immediate connection:

  • Geoff has just finished cleaning the kitchen (correct).
  • Geoff has only finished cleaning the kitchen.* (different meaning)

*The second sentence is grammatically correct, but the meaning is different. It means: Geoff has cleaned the kitchen but no other rooms. However, the first sentence means, Geoff finished cleaning a few moments ago. The speaker thinks it is important to express that this happened a short while before the time of speaking.

We can also use only and just when discussing an action in the past, but in these instances we are not trying to stress the connection to the time of speaking. Instead, we only want to express something that happened recently. Also, notice that the word position changes – it comes before the amount of time, not before the action verb:

  • Tina quit her job only a few months ago (correct).
  • Tina quit her job just a few months ago (correct).

Word order is also important when we are thinking about just in sentences concerning a small quantity of something or an immediate connection in time. Earlier, we said you could put just before the main verb in a sentence to mean ‘a small quantity of something’, but this can cause confusion in some sentences:

  • Tony had just drunk four drinks before he fell off his chair.

In this sentence, we mean that immediately after Tony had consumed four drinks, he fell off his chair. It doesn’t mean that he had a mere four drinks before falling off his chair. To express this, we need to say:

  • Tony had drunk just four drinks before he fell off his chair.

Just now comes after the action verb (drunk). As this is a sentence about a small quantity of something, we can also use only to form it, but before the action verb:

  • Tony had only had four drinks before he fell off his chair.

Practise saying a sentence aloud to see if it feels like the stress is on quantity or time.

Only and just can appear together in the expression ‘only just’. We use only just to mean ‘within a small margin’ – e.g. Sue and Chris only just had enough money to pay the rent last month or Harriet only just made it to the station before the train left.

Just not only

Just is the only word possible when it means ‘exactly’:

  • The beach looked just how Sandra had imagined it. (correct)
  • The beach looked only how Sandra had imagined. (incorrect)

Using only in this context is wrong. Also notice that just doesn’t come before an action verb in this sentence. It can come before a pronoun (as in the example above), a preposition (e.g. Charlie looked just as young as Dave.) or other word types.

Another time we use just exclusively is when we want to stress how we feel about something:

  • Submitting homework late is just not acceptable! (correct)
  • Submitting homework late is only not acceptable! (incorrect)

We also only use just to soften a statement and make it less direct:

  • Could I just have a quick word with Jess? (correct)
  • Could I only have a quick word with Jess? (incorrect)

Again, the word positions may change, but we cannot use only. There are more adverb meanings of just, as well as an adjective meaning of just. Check out ‘additional meanings’ below for more examples.

Only not just

There are situations where we use only and not just as an adverb (again, see the ‘additional meanings’ section below). The main one is when only is used as an adjective (a word that describes a thing). Here we use only to mean ‘unique or one of a kind’:

  • This is the only time I’m going to remind you! (correct)
  • This is the just time I’m going to remind you! (incorrect)

Another occasion we use only and not just is when only acts as a word that connects two ideas together. We use only to contrast something we said in a previous part of the sentence. Here, it goes at the beginning of the second idea:

  • I would come to the party, only I have so much work to do this weekend. (correct)
  • I would come to the party, just I have so much work to do this weekend.* (incorrect)

*Note that you can use the expression ‘it’s just that’ to mean the same as only in this context.

If you don’t know which word to use, try using a synonym. For example, instead of just, try exactly – e.g. Ben wanted to choose exactly (/just) the right moment to propose to this girlfriend. Only would not be suitable here.

What does just mean?

Adverb: ‘a small quantity of something’.

Synonyms: only, not more than, no greater than, no more important than.

Set expression: just around the corner, just right, just desserts, just in case, not just a pretty face.

Additional meanings:

  1. Adverb similar to ‘simply’ or ‘merely’ – e.g. It was just a bit rainy outside.
  2. Adverb to express the sole purpose of something  – e.g. Those shoes are just for walking.
  3. Adverb to express an immediate connection to the time being discussed – e.g. Fran has just finished that novel.
  4. Adverb to stress an opinion – e.g. Brian just refuses to eat vegetables.
  5. Adverb to soften a statement – e.g. Would James mind just closing the window a little?
  6. Adverb to highlight a slight probability – e.g. There’s just a chance England can win the cup this time.
  7. Adverb to suggest that something almost happened – e.g. That shot just missed the goal!
  8. Adjective that means ‘fair’, ‘right’ or ‘acceptable’ – e.g. The verdict in the court case was just.

What does only mean?

Adverb: ‘a small quantity of something’.

Synonyms: just, not more than, no greater than, no more important than.

Set expressions: a chain is only as good as its weakest link, God only knows, an only child, only time will tell.

Additional meanings:

  1. Adverb similar to ‘simply’ or ‘merely’ – e.g. It’s only a bit of rain!
  2. Adverb to express the sole purpose of something – e.g. Those shoes are only for walking.
  3. Adverb to express that some or one thing/s are completed, but others still need to be done – e.g. We’ve only answered five questions, but we still need to do ten more.
  4. Adverb to express recency – e.g. They went on holiday only two weeks ago.
  5. Adjective that expresses that something or a set of something is unique or one of a kind – e.g. This is the only horse that can win the race.
  6. Conjunction used for contrast – e.g. I would have come earlier, only the train was late.

Quiz: just or only?

Test your understanding of only vs. just with the quick quiz below! Your score will automatically be given at the end.

  1. The pupils _______ had two days of school left before the holidays.
    a. just
    b. only
    c. just or only
  2. It’s _______ a bit of juice on the carpet; there’s no need to shout!
    a. just
    b. only
    c. just or only
  3. If ________ the children had saved more money when they were younger…
    a. just
    b. only
    c. just or only
  4. Dad’s _________ got back from work; give him five minutes to sit down.
    a. just
    b. only
    c. just or only
  5. What does this mean: ‘I’ve just eaten two pizzas.’
    a. I ate two pizzas just a short time ago.
    b. I have only eaten two pizzas.
  6. Doris screamed at the kids: Will you _________tidy your toys away!
    a. just
    b. only
    c. just or only
  7. Could you_______ pass me the salt?
    a. just
    b. only
    c. just or only
  8. It was the ________ time Trish had seen Terry happy all year.
    a. just
    b. only
    c. just or only
  9. Darren said he would’ve let you know earlier, _______ he had no internet signal.
    a. just
    b. only
    c. just or only
  10. The necklace was_________ what Betty wanted for Christmas.
    a. just
    b. only
    c. just or only

Answers:

  1. c
  2. c
  3. b
  4. c
  5. a
  6. a
  7. a
  8. b
  9. b
  10. a
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Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
Sam S.
— ESL Tutor.
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