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Just when you thought you had mastered English…


Just when you thought you had mastered English…

A conversation with Natalia Karelina and Frith Maier about some fine points of English that can trip up even the best!

Native English Institute (NEI) in Seattle, Washington, specializes in teaching conversational English as a Second Language. Many of the Institute’s subscribers are themselves teachers of English. NEI’s American teachers noticed that some subscribers consistently overuse the word just. The “just overuse” pattern they observe is almost always among people whose native language is Russian.  What follows is a fascinating exploration between two linguists. Frith Maier is the Founding Director of Native English Institute. Natalia Karelina teaches English at Moscow State University.

FM: Natalia, why do Russians have a habit of using just so much, and adding it in places where we native speakers don’t? As you know, Kristina Curtis Ekiz (NEI’s Education Director) and I have both studied Russian for many years. Usually, our own background in Russian grammar and phonetics helps us to understand why Russians’ native language is leading them to make certain mistakes in English. We’re especially puzzled by this one because the people who overuse just are advanced speakers; Russians who know English at only a beginning or intermediate level do not make this mistake. Recently I’ve heard several Russians say:
Just you know…
Just I think…
Just I teach
Just I was trying

None of these are natural in English. What makes them sound OK to the Russian ear?

NK: Overusing just by Russian learners of English might be connected with the variety of ways it can be translated into the Russian language, for example: только что, только, лишь, просто, едва ли, почти, именно, как раз, точно. All these words are very colloquial in Russian, but may be used in completely different sentences where their equivalents in English will be variably only, exactly, simply, almost, or barely. It causes a lot of confusion. The most common way to use just -- expressing that something happened not long ago -- is только что in Russian:

Ive just seen her. Я только что видел ее.

I’ve just done this work. Я только что сделал эту работу.

FM: Those are perfectly normal uses of just. You could also translate Я только что видел ее as I just saw her.
However, we would not say “Just I saw her…” Do you suppose that part of the difficulty is that word order is more restrictive in English? For example, in Russian it’s also OK to say:

Я ее только что видел.
Я видел ее только что.

The meaning of these three Russian sentences is the same, even though только что can be anywhere in the sentence. In English, just must come before the verb: “I just saw her”. Then again, for every rule, there’s an exception… if you add now, that frees just to move around:

Just now, I saw her at the store.
I saw her on the street just now.
I saw her just now with her dog.

NK: So just now can mean только что, and just now can also mean at the moment, which in Russian becomes “сейчас», в «настоящее время».

I am having dinner just now. Call me later - Я сейчас обедаю. Позвони мне позже.

For that matter, how do you know when just refers to something that happened very recently—like in the examples we have been discussing, as opposed to when just means that something almost didn’t happen? I mean those situations where in Russian we say "едва ли", "почти".

We just caught the train - Мы едва успели на поезд.

FM: Wow—good question! That’s an example where context is required to be sure of the meaning.

We just caught the train, even though we left home in plenty of time.

The explanation of circumstances clarifies that you barely made it before the train left. (едва ли)

We just caught the train, instead of dealing with the hassle and expense of driving. (Просто)
Thanks to the context, it’s clear that you could substitute simply for just; just in this case doesn’t mean either едва ли or только что.

NK: It’s amazing – just can place an event not only in the present, or the immediate past, but even in the immediate future:

Where is your bag? - I am just getting it. Где сумка? - Сейчас я принесу ее.

FM: When just describes an event that is going to happen very soon, we often add about:

I’m just about to get it. Я как раз собираюсь принести ее.

But be careful with that one, because just about can also refer to something that appeared very likely to happen, but did not actually happen: I just about got in an accident. Я вот-вот попал в аварию.

NK: Just is also used to say "именно", "как раз", "точно".

We will do this assignment just as you advise - Мы выполним это задание как раз так, как вы советуете.

FM: That helps to explain why Russians also tend to overuse exactly. In the example you gave, exactly could take the place of just and the sentence would make perfect sense.

NK: To some extent, it seems that just is everywhere and may be used as a filler, showing that you are confident in spoken English. This could be the reason that just overuse is more pronounced in Russian speakers who know English quite well. Of course, in most cases just is used instead of only, which grammatically may be correct. But many Russian speakers forget about the great number of other situations where just cannot be used, which leads to misunderstanding, misinterpretation or overuse (at the beginning of the sentence, for example, meaning просто.) Perhaps, to be on the safe side, we should just avoid using just at the beginning of a sentence.

FM: Nice use of just in “just avoid” (meaning “simply avoid”)!  But it’s not that easy: often in English we do use just at the beginning of a sentence. Here are 3 examples where just opens the sentence:
Just because you like chocolate doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
Just like I told you, it’s going to rain.

Just when you think that things can’t get any worse, they do.

Previously, I had assumed that when a Russian misuses just as a filler, he is looking for a connector to take the place of a specific word in Russian. Our conversation has convinced me that it’s more subtle … advanced speakers realize that filler words are part of what makes conversation sound natural. Americans use a lot of fillers; we fill pauses with “ya know” and “so” and “um.” It’s just that just is not a word which native speakers use as a filler.

NK: I tell my students that the best strategy is to be aware that just always has a function in English, and pay attention to the underlying meaning.


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