Only just to realise the ambiguity

I got an email recently from file-hosting service Dropbox, telling me about the apps they have for different devices. This is the first of two sentences in the main body of the email; see how it sounds to you before reading on:

Have you ever wanted to show off some photos, or pull up a doc from work, just to realize you left them on your computer at home?

Does it read strangely to you? It does to me. The problem lies in the use of just to mean only. These two words are often synonymous: I’ve just/only one chapter left; We met just/only last week; The house is just/only down the road.

But the construction only to [verb], in the sense that something unexpected or unfortunate happens next (I stepped outside, only to realise I forgot my keys) is not somewhere just can automatically slot in, because just to before a verb usually means ‘(simply/solely) in order to’, as in Johnny Cash’s lyric I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

I searched COCA for pairs of phrases like just to find out vs. only to find out, to see how much these uses are kept separate semantically. The division is pretty consistent and clear-cut – here’s a sample of each:

It’s worth it just to find out how you fooled me.

I’m here just to find out the truth – why this thing was built.

I bought detergent and a packet of flapjacks, just to find out what they were.

Risking their lives just to find out what’s on the other side of those mountains.

In all of these lines you can replace just to with in order to, or so that I [or they] can/could, and the meaning remains essentially the same. But doing this for only in the following examples changes the meaning significantly, sometimes absurdly:

She got in only to find out that the vision care line had closed.

Instead, I’d gambled all my sweetness only to find out I was disposable.

How one family was told their daughter died only to find out she’s really alive.

I had finally won a Derby, only to find out I’d lost a sense of why it had once mattered so much.

So when Dropbox uses just instead of only before an unexpected and unfortunate event (‘just to realize you left them at home’), it invites a similarly nonsensical misinterpretation:

Have you ever wanted to show off some photos, or pull up a doc from work, [in order to] realize you left them on your computer at home?

My initial reading of the email took me down this garden path for a moment before I realised what had happened. Dropbox should have used only, not just. At least that’s my impression; the line may be less misleading for others. I’d be interested in your reaction either way.

40 Responses to Only just to realise the ambiguity

  1. Harry Lake says:

    Stan, don’t take it amiss, but I dispute your sentence ‘In all of these lines you can replace just with in order to, or just to with so that I [or they] can/could, and the meaning remains the same.’ To me at least, ‘just’ in those examples does not mean ‘in order to’ but ‘simply’ or ‘purely’ or ‘merely’. As you recast them, the meaning is not unchanged. Your point, however, is clear – I think. Having said that, I saw nothing really wrong with that first sentence and assumed you were talking about something to do with ‘pulling up a doc from work’. Context.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Fair point, Harry. Replacing just to with in order to retains the essential meaning but loses the idea of doing something solely for whatever reason, as I described it earlier in the post. In any case it seems the troublesome line was less problematic for you, which is interesting.

  2. kim881 says:

    Hi Stan. I agree with you.
    According to the dictionary, just (adverb) means: exactly, barely, at this instant, merely, only or really – in that order. Synonyms for this adverb are: absolutely, completely entirely, exactly, perfectly, precisely, hardly, lately, only now, recently, scarcely, at most, but, merely, no more than, nothing but, only, simply, solely – in that order.
    On the other hand, only (adverb) means: solely, merely, exclusively; and only (conjunction) means: but then, excepting that.
    In the case of Dropbox: ‘Have you ever wanted to show off some photos, or pull up a doc from work, just to realize you left them on your computer at home?’ I would say that just is being used incorrectly as a conjunction, where only would serve the meaning better: ‘Have you ever wanted to show off some photos, or pull up a doc from work, only to (but then to/excepting that you) realize you left them on your computer at home?’
    However, many words appear to be changing in meaning and in usage, which are held to be acceptable when the meaning or usage is widespread. I personally do not like the use of just in this instance but accept that many people may disagree.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi Kim. Certainly words change in meaning and usage, but I wouldn’t have thought just had changed sufficiently to be used this way in a (presumably proof-read) corporate email. Like you, I would have gone with only without hesitation.

      Different dictionaries define and categorise just and only slightly differently, so I looked them up in half a dozen good dictionaries while writing the post. None includes just as a conjunction – most or all would classify it as an adverb in this context, though that is a notoriously tricky grammatical class.

  3. Chips Mackinolty says:

    I agree with you, Stan, the Dropbox use of the conjunction is incorrect. But what I thought you were pointing to is the implicit assumption that you would have work material on your home computer, ie that so many of us now work from home (often after hours/unpaid etc)!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Before condemning it as incorrect I wanted to see how it read to other people – it’s certainly ambiguous and potentially misleading, however mildly and briefly. Good point about the trend towards working from home!

  4. thanks for parsing this all out, i think i’ll just watch and learn. :)

  5. mazblast says:

    It’s not often that one sees a Johnny Cash lyric pointed out as an example of proper grammar.

  6. kcecelia says:

    The Dropbox line does read as incorrect to me. The use of “just” indicates an intention, as in the Johnny Cash lyric. I would use “only to find” to express what I think they intended to express. Even if you had not noted this, if I’d read the line on my own, I’d have noted it as confusing and wrong.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for your reaction, Katherine. I’m reluctant to call it incorrect, but as far as I can tell it’s not a standard usage, and it is potentially (and needlessly) confusing.

  7. carolsaller says:

    I agree that the line needs editing! However, I can imagine that this usage will continue to grow in sentences where it doesn’t result in nonsense. (I’m more interested in your reminder of the existence of COCA! Thanks for that.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Someone else (on Twitter) wondered if it was becoming common, which is possible; or it might be a long-term, low-level variant that’s more visible now because of the internet. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to look into it diachronically.

  8. John Cowan says:

    I have no problem with either only or just in this sentence, though I’d use only myself. I googled “I went there just to find out” (12 hits), and the third hit is “I went there just to find out that i can’t enter it because i didn’t unlock [something in a game] yet.” Clearly this does not mean “solely to find out”, but rather “and frustratingly I found out” or the like. On the other hand, the 11th hit is “Initially i went there just to find out more about the charges but the lady convinced me to do my admission then”, which is clearly “solely to find out”. So both meanings are in use.

  9. The construction didn’t stand out to me, but the more I think about it, the more difficult it is to know why it works. I wonder if it’s a US colloquialism and Dropbox wasn’t thinking globally enough with their promo. (Dropbox HQ is in San Francisco). I feel like “just to find out/realize” it’s used in song lyrics and like John Cowan said, it indicates frustration.

    It means I’ve done a significant amount of work and it ultimately adds up to nothing. I could imagine saying “My car broke down. I walked all the way to the gas station just to realize I forgot my purse in the car.” I did a lot of work and all I have to show for it is a terrible realization and the knowledge that more work is ahead. Preparation and no payoff.

    It’s not a glamorous phrase and I probably wouldn’t be thinking about it this hard if it wasn’t for you, so thanks.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It may well be a US colloquialism, Brianne. And I’d be surprised if it didn’t have some informal currency in other dialects. ‘Frustration’ covers a lot of examples, but the broader description of something unexpected or unfortunate happening encompasses examples where frustration doesn’t feature. To take a few recent examples from Twitter:

      When you feel tiny footprints on your legs and freak out for a second just to realize it’s your roommates cat jumping onto your bed

      It’s actually embarrassing how many times a day I have my headphones in just to realize there’s no music playing

      actually woke up on time from my nap to go to practice & got ready just to realize practice was cancelled 😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊

  10. grammargeddonangel says:

    Hi, Stan. I would also change that “just” to “only,” for the same reasons you outlined. It’s possible I’d use “just” there in everyday speech, but if I had time to consider my options I’d come down on the “only” side. (Keep in mind I’m American, Midwest born and raised.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for your insight, Karen. The usage seems to be in an interesting grey area of acceptability: not (yet) standard enough for unequivocal formal use, but unobjectionable at least in speech for a significant number of people, mainly American. My sample size is small, though, so I’ll keep an open mind and an eye out.

  11. laumerritt says:

    Being a native Spanish speaker, in my mind “just” translates as “justo” – so for me you either you use it in either too cases – when is “just” right and “just” for the heck of it. Leave chance or happenstance for other occasions… if “only”…

  12. elizdanjou says:

    My reaction was as yours, Stan. I stumbled over the sentence a bit, assuming “just to” meant “in order to accomplish this simple and singular purpose.” As an editor, I’d have changed it in an informational text.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It seems to be wrongfooting many or even most readers, Elizabeth. Context allows the intended meaning to be discerned quickly, but the miscue shouldn’t arise in the first place.

  13. Sharon says:

    I got that same notification from Dropbox and immediately thought the same thing as you, Stan (that I would have written ‘only’ in place of ‘just’), but reading back over it a few times, the construction seemed more acceptable to me. Perhaps this usage is growing and I’ve encountered it before without really registering it. But I definitely interpret ‘just to’ primarily as meaning ‘solely to’ or ‘purely to’. I probably wouldn’t phrase it that way myself but it makes sense to me (well, okay, I would totally change it if I came across it in a piece of text I was editing for an Irish/UK audience).

    • Stan Carey says:

      I had the same reaction, Sharon – it became less strange for me after a little while, though not to the extent that it seemed normal. There’s probably some variation in how acceptable I’d find the construction depending on the meaning and register. In a corporate memo it sounded decidedly off to my ears, but then it was the first time I remember noticing the usage.

  14. maceochi says:

    I thought the same as you did, Stan. Very confusing. But I wonder where all of these non-standard Twitter examples are coming from: are they non-native speakers? Was this Dropbox notification just a typo? One slightly tangential thought I’ve had is we have ‘only’, ‘just’ and ‘only just’, but not ‘just only’. Is this because one of these words is a clitic?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Based on a quick Twitter survey of ‘just to realize’, most users of the construction are either young and American or young and non-native-English-speaking. Twitter skews young(ish) anyway, and location doesn’t imply origin, but the first 20 usages (with a location) that I found today are from: Norway, Greece, Jerusalem, Vietnam, Kenya, Brazil/Peru, and U.S.: California, Texas, Kansas, Minnesota, Dakota, Nevada, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Ohio, Colorado, L.A., Florida, and 2x New York.

      I don’t think Dropbox’s use was a typo; I would guess it came naturally to whoever wrote the email – and to whoever proofread it, assuming that happened.

  15. I didn’t find it misleading but it certainly jarred – it wasn’t a smooth read, because, as you say, the word normally used in such cases is “only” and not “just”. I read it right because there was enough context, but it feels like a sentence that was written by someone who isn’t fluent.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s possible but unlikely that a global email from a company like Dropbox would be written by someone not fluent in English, unless it was then edited/proofed by a native-English speaker, who would have flagged it unless it seemed fine to them too.

      • Yes, highly unlikely – which makes this an interesting question, and so interesting to hear some people say that for them it does sound normal. It seems much more likely to me that there’s a difference in usage – possibly geographical – than to think that the email really was written by someone who wasn’t fluent.

  16. Becky Coleman says:

    The usage is jarring and just a bit distracting. I just had to chime in, given the serendipitous post about ‘just’: http://www.businessinsider.com/former-google-exec-says-this-word-can-damage-your-credibility-2015-6

    • Stan Carey says:

      Jarring and distracting chimes with my own response to it. The just discussed in the linked article is a different usage, of course, but FWIW I would have huge misgivings about policing women’s language that way, even when it’s well-intentioned.

  17. SlideSF says:

    As a native speaker of American English, I find the use of ‘just’ in that way quite common in speech, but it sounds sloppy or wrong when written down.

  18. My first thought was that the commas in that sentence shouldn’t be there. Though I don’t have the exact grammatical vocabulary, the sentence should be “Have you ever wanted to show off … or pull up…” With the comma there, it reads as if a “to” is missing before “pull up.”

    to me, the use of “just” seems more jarring without the commas. That second comma seems to make that “just” more acceptable, or at least better camouflaged.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a good point, Andy. I agree that the second comma masks the questionable use of just, and that without it the line’s strangeness would likely be even more conspicuous. Grammatically the commas aren’t warranted, but I imagine they were added to lend the line a certain rhythm or emphasise its structure. Adding to before pull would certainly enhance the parallelism.

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