Question

Just in Time: Just + Present Perfect

Question from Henrik in Croatia:

I just called or I’ve just called? What’s right?
Stevie Wonder says: I just called to say I love you. Shouldn’t it be Present Perfect instead of Simple Past?

Answer

Hi Henrik, A couple of weeks ago I answered a similar question about the grammar used in song lyrics. That time it concerned the lyrics in an Akon song and if you look at the blog posting or Grammar FAQ posting you will be able to link through to that posting.

Although I’d say the same things as in the Akon post about lyrics using a more poetic and liberal and perhaps socio-cultural grammar I thought I’d answer this question as it does bring up one interesting grammatical usage and that is when JUST, an adverb of time, is used with the Present Perfect.

In previous posts I’ve said that the main use of the Present Perfect is to talk about actions started in the past and continuing or having a connection with the present, for example:

  • I have lived in Bombay for twenty years.
  • She has been married since 2005.

In both of these examples the action of living in Bombay or being married started at a point in the past but is still going on in the present.

But what about this sentence which also uses the Present Perfect:

  • I have just called to say I love you.

The adverb of time,just, indicates that this action is in the very recent past and is completed so why don’t we use the Simple Past (as Stevie Wonder does in the song).

Well, here we have one of those little grammatical twists that are sent to annoy us all but especially those who are trying to learn how English works.

You could use the Simple Past here and it would not be wrong.

What complicates it is that using ‘just’ with the Present Perfect to talk about a complete, recent past action is also correct. We often use it with the Present Perfect when there is result in the present or future of the past action.For example: •

  • I’ve just failed my exams and will have to study for them again.
  • She has just lost her car keys and can’t leave for work.

But we are talking about fairly fine distinctions here and I would say that Stevie Wonder’s grammar is spot on in this part of the song!

I just called to say I love you
I just called to say how much I care
I just called to say I love you
And I mean it from the bottom of my heart

Just to keep you thinking – just can also be used to mean the only reason. For example, ‘I just called to say I love you’ could also mean the only reason I called was to say I love you. I’ll leave you with that until next time!

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