October 18, 2018
The further one advances in academic and professional life, the more it is apparent that details matter. In music as in language, what seems to be a dispensable, dismissible little piece of any project has the power to drastically change the outcome. It should go without saying that the same is true for almost any area of human activity.
Consider the following example: “You just drink lemonade,” vs. “You drink just lemonade.” By placing the word “just” before the word “drink,” one conveys that the only action taken is drinking. In other words, “you” do not do anything else to the lemonade besides drink it. By placing the word “just” before the word “lemonade,” one conveys that the only drink to be drunk is the lemonade. The desired message in both versions of the sentence is, colloquially, that “you” do not drink water, milk, or grape juice, for instance—even though the first version would be better off conveying the idea that no other action is taken upon the lemonade. Itt gets only drunk, not boiled, frozen, or spilled.
I would say this is pretty straightforward grammar, and relates directly to the word “only.” To me, both “just” and “only” are problems in common conversation. Other more egregious errors related to word order do occur, but these two often slip under the radar. How many times have you heard someone say, “You only have one left?”, or “You have only one left?” While these two questions would generally be used to express identical meanings, the details of word order present alternative analyses.
As you have read in the “just” example, “just” before “drink” affects the action of drinking. “Just” before “lemonade” refers specifically to what “you” drink. Similarly, one should commit to the wording “You have only one left?” because there is no doubt about the word “only” referring to “one.” The idea generally expressed does not have to do with “only” having, as opposed to some alternative to “have.”
The upshot here is that smaller units of meaning constitute entire ideas. No matter how confident or committed to some idea to be expressed as a whole, it is always necessary to make sure the units of meaning of which the bigger picture is comprised are coherent in and of themselves.