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.