Don’t Blur Fine Distinctions

If Helen offers André food, but André has just eaten, he will say, “Thank you, but I’m not really hungry.” If Helen persists, André might say the same words in a different order: “Thank you, but I’m really not hungry,” which lets her know in a civil way that she’s not going to change his mind. When you think about it, there is a clear-cut difference between not really and really not that is well worth preserving.

Word order matters. Many people who mean to say Don’t just stand there now say instead Just don’t stand there. But the two statements mean different things. Don’t just stand there means “Don’t stand there doing nothing.” Just don’t stand there means “Don’t stand there for any reason.”

The meaning of just depends on its placement in a sentence, especially when it is accompanied by negative adverbs such as not or never, or negative verbs such as don’t or wouldn’t.

Careless speakers these days blur the distinction between phrases like not just and just not. Traditionally, not just means “not merely” or “not only,” and just not means “simply not” or “definitely not.” He’s a trusted adviser, not just a friend means “He’s both my adviser and my friend.” Whereas He’s a trusted adviser, just not a friend means something quite different: “I trust his advice, but he’s no friend of mine.”

Saying “just not” when we mean “not just” could lead to misunderstanding, embarrassment, even hurt feelings.

Pop Quiz
Match each of the first four sentences with its closest paraphrase in sentences A-D.

1. I just wouldn’t leave.
2. I wouldn’t just leave.
3. I can’t really concentrate in here.
4. I really can’t concentrate in here.

A. This place interferes with my concentration.
B. This place makes concentrating impossible for me.
C. If I were to leave, I’d tell you first.
D. There is no possibility that I’d leave.

Pop Quiz Answers

1-D, 2-C, 3-A, 4-B

Posted on Thursday, December 12, 2013, at 7:01 pm

4 Comments on Don’t Blur Fine Distinctions

4 responses to “Don’t Blur Fine Distinctions”

  1. Barbara S. says:

    loved your eletter – Don’t Blur Fine Distinctions – absolutely brilliant

  2. Karen T. says:

    Which is the proper wording?

    He was a close friend of Tammy.
    He was a close friend of Tammy’s.

    I think the first one is correct, although it sounds awkward.
    Any enlightenment from you on the subject?

    I am Canadian. Don’t hold that against me!

    • Jane says:

      Both sentences are correct, and mean the same thing. To learn more about this formation, we advise Googling “double genitive.” You may run across some interesting discussions on this topic. In one of the articles online, an author argues that “He was a close friend of Tammy” says that he looked upon Tammy as a close friend, while “He was a close friend of Tammy’s” says that Tammy looked upon him as a close friend. Pretty subtle.

      Thank you for writing. We won’t hold it against you that you are Canadian. In fact, we are very pleased that our friends to the north are beginning to learn English (just kidding!).

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