The meaning of “just” in narrative

I’ve done a lot of narrative data analysis over the years, and one of the lessons is that many of the words that past experts used to ignore, even calling them “junk” words, and actually the most important ones.

Think about the 60 most common English words. If you’re trying to extract a theme, topic, or unique piece of content these are unimportant. But if you want to understand feelings and a person’s attitude whilst writing, they’re the secret.

Rank Word Rank Word Rank Word Rank Word Rank Word Rank Word
1 the 11 it 21 this 31 or 41 so 51 me
2 be 12 for 22 but 32 will 42 up 52 make
3 to 13 not 23 his 33 an 43 out 53 can
4 of 14 on 24 by 34 my 44 if 54 like
5 and 15 with 25 from 35 one 45 about 55 time
6 a 16 he 26 they 36 all 46 who 56 no
7 in 17 as 27 we 37 would 47 get 57 just
8 that 18 you 28 say 38 there 48 which 58 him
9 have 19 do 29 her 39 their 49 go 59 know
10 I 20 at 30 she 40 what 50 when 60 take

James Pennebaker’s The secret life of Pronouns is a seminal book in helping me understand this. (Thank you Kieron Kirkland for recommending it!) I’ve highlighted all the pronouns in the top 60, and already commented on them here. And it’s significant that many of the key journalism questions are in that list too. But in deeper analysis, the word “just” keeps popping up as encoding a specific meaning I hadn’t realized at first.

Take this wordtree of about 100,000 #metoo tweets, courtesy of

The word “just” appears often, and thus it is close to the center of the wordtree. The word “finally” is also pretty central, but we all understand that word. People are fed-up with the status quo and are demanding change. But what does “just” mean?

Here’s another example where “just” shows up often:

This map is from 463 comments in a survey I recently ran, where organization staff were asked how the funder could improve the system that it uses to measure their effectiveness. A large part of this measurement system is providing the staff with tools and training to help them improve. But admittedly, nobody ever has time for that.

So the central word in this wordtree is “just”, as in “I just need more time” or “it’s just hard to complete the learning cycles” and “I’m sure it’s great, if I just gave it a chance.”

Sounds like breakup language, doesn’t it?


  • “Just” is a word we use to code the aspirations we will never realize.
  • It’s also a word that softens the harsh reality of a breakup. Or when giving feedback to those in power. “It’s not you, it’s just me, really!”
  • “Just” shows up where something is changing.
  • “Just” is used in sarcasm when reacting to another inconsiderate person.
  • In both examples, “just” is closely tied to “I’m” in sentences. And when people speak in the first person singular, they’re saying alot about you, as much as they’re saying about themselves.
  • Or they’re writing about something that they care about, as “just” is part of a pursuasive argument.

Just look at some of those #metoo tweets: (see how I used just? as part of making an argument)

This is happening to real people – not just actresses. Know that. To my fellow survivors

PSA: Just because your direction or character is “sexy” does not mean ANYONE in the s?

“The #MeToo movement isn?t just for the rich and famous. This episode of @BackgroundBrief by @alexsmann reveals the?

“Just forced myself to read every tweet from the feminist website @Jezebel over the past 24 hours.

“Ive held this for so long just because I didnt want to be judged or have people feel pitty for me. But in all rea?

“Orange Bowl ref be like ?#metoo?. fox and friends tell him to just handle it himself. Mark Richt stays in.

“my dad just said ?#metoo?…. what?”

Im so sorry to all the women who have lost their careers and everything they worked for just for saying no #MeToo #se?”

“We found out just how creepy men in a position of power can be. The #MeToo movement gave a voice to the previously voiceless”

“RT @ajie_mandiri: Just some limited kaleidoscope of 2017, containing some topics that really caught my attention. @cartoonmovement #2017inR?”


That’s it for now. But just stay tuned…

6 thoughts on “The meaning of “just” in narrative

  1. Currently Western HIV/AIDS Network is in the process of finalizing her PARTNERSHIP with GLOBAL-GIVING. We hope for the best. Zachariah Amukhale Muyokani C.E.O. WESTERN HIV/AIDS NETWORK. Organization’s

  2. 1. Denial and isolation; – “It was just a joke.”
    2. Anger; “It’s just so unfair!”
    3. Bargaining; “If I could just do this one thing it will all go away.”
    4. Depression: “I just can’t deal with this anymore.”
    5. Acceptance: “No matter what, it just wasn’t right.”

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