[This fragment is available in an audio version.]

Sometimes it’s wrong to begin a phrase with the word “just”. I offer as evidence two such situations. I think there’s a common thread to be drawn.

Stuck · People with mental-health issues can get stuck. For example, when some combination of depression and anxiety means they can’t get out of bed all day, and can’t say why. Or when they really need to get dressed or packed or organized for some imminent un-reschedulable event, and can’t get started.

It would be easy to  — sorry, it is easy, I know this because I have — say something like “Just stand up and look out the window, it’s sunny.” Or “Just grab some random underwear and drop them in the suitcase, then you’ll be started”. Or “Just get the binder out of your knapsack and look at the first page.”

This. Will. Not. Help.

Broken · Suppose a colleague at work who takes care of an important high-volume Web Service is dealing with a horrible problem: Spiking latencies, or an actual outage. They’re not making good progress, and someone’s asked you if you can help. You look at some graphs and error messages. It’s easy (once again, I speak from experience) to say something like “Could you just cache the hot partition keys?” or “So, just scan the logs for the high-latency signals and frequency-sort them.”

This. Will. Not. Help.

Philology · Pardon this sidebar; I’ve got a history with dictionaries. And, we have lots of ’em within pretty easy reach of where I’m sitting to write this. I was curious about this usage of “just” in a sense which sort of means “merely”, diminishing the difficulty of whatever action is being proposed.

So I grabbed the Shorter OED (4th ed.), which is a lot easier on the wrists and eyes than the full OED and which, cognoscenti will tell you, is maybe a little stronger on etymology than its larger sibling. Disappointingly, I turned up nothing. So I went and took out the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Note: This is not the teeny little Compact Oxford Dictionary, it’s a 1989 printing of the then-new full Second Edition of the OED, photographically reduced with nine pages on each of its (very large) leaves. Which means it strains the wrist and you need a magnifying glass to read the text.

Wondering why I care? I helped produce these artifacts. Must write about that someday… anyhow.

In the big OED I struck gold. Which surprised me since I have always thought that the Shorter is enough to suffice anyone who’s not trying to figure out what Chaucer meant or when Indian vocabulary begin to infuse into English. In fact, this is the first time in decades that I’ve actually needed to go to the big OED.

Below I reproduce the relevant page. Warning: If you enlarge this you’ll get the full-resolution picture, and it’s not small. The page starts halfway through the adverbial senses of “just”.

The OED on the adverbial form of “just”

There, we learn (see sense 5) of the usage which means “No more than; merely; barely”. The first supporting quotation is from Robert Hooke in 1665, but my favorite is from Macaulay in 1849: “Men who … seemed to think they had given an illustrious proof of loyalty by just stopping short of regicide.”

But let’s not ignore sense 5.c: “Used to extenuate the action expressed by a verb, and so to represent it as a small thing.” The first known usage from by Walter Scott in 1815. The most recent quotation is from 1898 and resonates with me: “Mother! Do just get in with me for a few minutes till the train starts.” I wonder why Mother wouldn’t get in, and I’m pretty sure that “just” didn’t help.

Take-away · Do not, to quote the OED, “represent as a small thing” the difficulty of something you’re asking someone else to do, when you’re not inside their head and don’t understand what they see and feel. The word “just” is a signal that you’re not taking their problem seriously.

So, don’t do that.

I’d like to say “Just don’t” but obviously shouldn’t.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Hanan Cohen (Nov 08 2022, at 03:43)

I am reminded of a positive situation at work from a few years ago.

A colleague and I had a task that we needed to finish very quickly and everyone was waiting for the result.

Our manager popped her head to our cubicle and asked "do you need any help?" and I quietly said to myself "please don't" and then she muttered to herself "I will only make it worse" and left.

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From: Corbin (Nov 08 2022, at 06:35)

I am reminded of Pirsig's comments on "just" from his first book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". Pirsig points out that "just" is effectively a way to use the speakers' belief to contrast with and minimize the listeners' belief. It might have gained an additional denotation as a synonym for "only", but we should not embrace it as a quantifier.

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From: jh (Nov 08 2022, at 07:39)

I would argue that the "Just" in "Just don't" has a different flavor. It emphasizes the "don't" instead of shrugging over it: "Whatever you do, don't push the big red button. Just don't." Saying "Don't use `just` to dismiss others' concerns. Just don't." seems perfectly consistent to me.

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From: Daniel Sears (Nov 08 2022, at 07:55)

This is precisely why “Just Say No” and “Just Do It” are so annoying.

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From: Rolf (Nov 08 2022, at 08:37)

Thanks for this, Tim. You made an important point here. Speaking as a mentally ill person.

R.

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From: Nick (Nov 08 2022, at 09:23)

Even if you don't say the word, offering the obvious solution can be infuriating: "I'm not stupid, that was the first thing I tried".

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From: Jessica D. (Nov 08 2022, at 10:12)

My co-worker sent me this article and I wanted to say THANK YOU because "just" is my least favorite word! I even gave a lightning talk at PyCon this year about why I stay away from it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-rpo4Xm_lM&t=374s

I'm so glad I'm not the only one!

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From: passerby (Nov 08 2022, at 12:07)

Feeding "just do it" etc to Google Translate and observing the foreign word choices may also be interesting.

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From: Rob (Nov 08 2022, at 14:10)

"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."

H. L. Mencken

If people could "just" stop eating so much/eating so little, hallucinating, drinking, spending, sleeping so much/so little, get/quit a job, take a bath, give it a rest, pay the damn rent, or stop already, and so on, I would (very thankfully) be out of a job....

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From: Jack Jackson (Nov 08 2022, at 15:29)

This is right on the money, I love it and will be adding it to my collection of "links that I have primed and ready to send to someone in certain situations".

However - I wonder if this is an intentional stylistic choice, but you seem to have omitted what I consider to be an important part of the content. That is - an explanation of _why_ this will not help (and in fact will make it worse). The use of the minimizer "just" implies that the solution is simple, and that (you think that) the listener is lazy (in the first case) or incompetent (in the second). Not only have you presented an unhelpful suggestion, you've done it in a way that insults them at a time that their mental and emotional energy is required elsewhere. (It's _sort of_ implied in 'The word “just” is a signal that you’re not taking their problem seriously.', but falls short of stating 'and not taking their problem seriously is not just not-helpful, but actively unhelpful')

I know this, and you know this - but perhaps not everyone reading this page will figure this out by themselves. In particular, there is a certain type of mind (dare I say, prevalent among technical-minded people) who will refuse to follow guidance simply because they are told that it will lead to a good outcome, but first need to understand _why_ it will lead to a good outcome. This same type of person is also (again, over-generalizing in a mostly-accurate way) generally not great at considering others' experiences or points-of-view. Spelling it out can't hurt.

Hope this comment isn't too presumptuous. Again, great piece describing an important concept - I tooted (ugh) something similar recently, though less-well-explained than yours: https://mastodon.social/@scubbo/109309000881096972

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From: Stuart Dootson (Nov 08 2022, at 16:33)

My wife and I (both of whom have mental health issues - not the same ones, so at least we get variety!) have a mutual agreement not to use ‘just’…

Partly because of the implications of the word you mention, but also because my mother-in-law’s favourite phrase was ‘could you just <do some time consuming task>’ as you had your hand on the door handle…

Significantly exacerbated my wife’s issues, and mine as well - no, we didn’t have a great relationship with her…

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From: Mark Nichols (Nov 08 2022, at 20:04)

Years ago I ran across these two links, which demonstrate how to configure the Vim editor to highlight a whole list of words: just, however, clearly, of course, everyone knows, etc. I found it very useful to break those words out of my writing habit. http://css-tricks.com/words-avoid-educational-writing/ And https://github.com/pengwynn/dotfiles/commit/12159ea233180344be4e25d57056ccd37061a153

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From: James (Nov 09 2022, at 01:39)

Ooh, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary! A flatmate of mine had one back in the day and we were all amazed and spent many hours playing with it. Nerds. Would love to hear that story!

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From: mike hyden (Nov 09 2022, at 04:14)

I see so many managers abusing it on a daily basis, so many just do this and that completely diminishing the value of that. My immediate thought after hearing just do that is, ow god... can somebody else do it?

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From: Akagejin (Nov 09 2022, at 13:41)

I live with a wonderful person who struggles with packing and other choice-based realities. I truly understand the struggle faced by so many and honestly, honestly sympathize with these challenges. But.”, as a “normal”, functioning person, I am literally exhausted from picking up the slack for those poor souls who struggle with this mental demon. I get it is challenging, but do I have to deal with my stuff AND yours? Is that fair? I feel for you (truly) but I only have so much energy. What do we do?

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From: Akagejin (Nov 09 2022, at 17:26)

I live with a wonderful person who struggles with packing and other choice-based realities. I truly understand the struggle faced by so many and honestly, honestly sympathize with these challenges. But.”, as a “normal”, functioning person, I am literally exhausted from picking up the slack for those poor souls who struggle with this mental demon. I get it is challenging, but do I have to deal with my stuff AND yours? Is that fair? I feel for you (truly) but I only have so much energy. What do we do?

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From: Kimberly Cakebread (Nov 11 2022, at 10:43)

Yes! This! I've worked in technical content since 1988. "Can't you just..." is the perfect way to rile me up.

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From: MLS (Nov 11 2022, at 13:00)

So very true. Physiotherapists tend to say this a lot before they learn not to: "just relax". I know this because I am a stressed-out person with tense painful muscles. Which is why I am lying there on the physio's bench in the first place. And which is why the one thing that is not small and easy for me to do is to "just relax".

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From: Scott G (Nov 15 2022, at 17:33)

I also love it when people give me advice but don't tell me exactly how to accomplish or implement the advice and assume it is obvious.

It would be like you telling me your transmission in your car isn't engaging, so you can't get somewhere you want to go, and I respond with, "Well, fix it!" (I left out the just here, and it's still rather condescending) without telling me exactly *how* to do that, meaning how to diagnose, and then disassemble the transmission, find the faulty part, install a new one, put it all back together. Even if you could state what was wrong with it exactly, if you don't know how to repair a transmission, saying "fix it" is the most empty, useless and perhaps infuriating advice.

Some goes for depression -- telling someone to "Cheer up" isn't helping, because you are not specifying *how* to 'cheer up', what electrons in their brain do they have to move around in order to make "Cheer up" happen?

And don't get me started on people saying use your willpower to get something done. Again, *how* exactly do I implement that in my head to make that actually do something for me?

And worst, "It'll all work out." Oh, thanks, that's helpful, and really a cop out meaning I don't want to hear about it.

Not sure why I get so angry when people say things like this, but it is just triggering :)

/s.

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November 07, 2022
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