On the semantics of “just friends” and “more than friends”

Hi, everyone! I hope your week is off to a fantastic start! I know. I know. No one likes Mondays because the week's off to a new start. But you know what Mondays also mean? It's time for Monday Musings! Wherein I ramble about various and sundry depending on my whim or Patreon requests/suggestions. Posts are somewhere below 2,500 words at most and consist of short personal essays and discussions.

CN: Discussions of phrases harmful to aromantic people.

On the semantics of “just friends” and “more than friends”

Two of the most frequent and unintentional microaggressions against aromantic people are the phrases “just friends” and “more than friends”, but it can be hard to explain how and why these phrases are so harmful to aromantic people.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea is simple enough: these are phrases that posit that friendship is less important than sex and romance, that we can organise and categorise the importance of our relationships on uneven tiers and that society repeatedly tells us that sex-and-romance is the most important type of relationship a person can ever have. But asked how to explain why this implication exists can be… tricky, and it’s all down to semantics. Semantics, for those who don’t know, is the study of meaning in language. Semantics are what dictionaries use to explain words, if you need a more concrete example of what it does.

It’s easy to assume that everyone can see the implications made by these sentences, but the truth is that that’s not always true. I’ve been asked multiple times, after noting the harm and how to address it, to explain why the implication is there. If it was obvious, people would see it immediately, yet they don’t.

This week, then, I’m diving into linguistics – and semantics specifically – to try and explain why these phrases are harmful to aromantic people and offering suggestions on what you can use as an alternative, often with little visible change in meaning to anyone who is not aromantic.

I’ll start with “more than” because it’s the easiest of the two to explain and I’ll be using the Cambridge Dictionary (but any dictionary will result in roughly the same outline). The key in that idiom is the word ‘more’, so if we want to know how the semantics imply that friendship is less important than romosexual (romantic and sexual) relationships, that’s the best place to start. What does ‘more’ mean in concrete terms.

More, according to the dictionary, means “a larger or extra number or amount”. (We’ll get back to this.) We can also look up the idiom ‘more than’ itself. That nets us the definition of ‘very’, which doesn’t look like it makes a lot of sense in context – I mean what does ‘very friends’ even mean? – but pay attention to how the dictionary says it’s used. This particular idiom ‘more than X’ is part of a group of intensifying expression. Or, to rephrase it, it’s part of a group of expressions that makes something “greater, more serious or more extreme”.

Dictionary meanings can get a bit circular, but let’s jump back to the definition of ‘more’ since it just cropped up in our definitions again. If ‘more’ means “a larger or extra number or amount” that means there are, by necessity, at least two items involved. In this context those items are ‘friendship’ and ‘romosexual relationship’. One of them larger/greater/more serious/more extreme than the other because that is what ‘more than’ means. If one of them is larger than the other, one of them is also smaller than the other. Where there is a ‘more than’, there is a ‘less than’.

And here’s where things get fascinating and we can really start to get a sense of the way ‘more than friends’ is harmful. You see if we look up the idiom ‘less than’, the dictionary tells us it’s a phrase “used to say that behaviour does not have the good or attractive characteristic that is stated”. That’s… rather negative, but it’s a usage that’s automatically implied by the use of ‘more than’.

The sentences “They’re more than friends” and “They’re less than lovers” mean, in that sense, the same thing: friendship does not have the good or attractive characteristics imply by a romosexual relationship.

It can be hard for people to grasp that because, after all, saying “They’re more than friends” doesn’t literally say that friendship is less important and not many people would ever think to say “They’re less than lovers” to imply that they’re just friends.

Oh, wait. They do say exactly that. The thing is that they use different words to do it so we don’t notice it unless we’re paying close attention. Like all microaggressions, if they don’t affect us they can be incredibly difficult to spot and these are no different. Saying “They’re just friends” is effectively the same as saying “They’re less than lovers”, and if you’re struggling to explain why, the dictionary can come to our rescue. All we need to do is look up ‘just’.

Just is a word that has many meanings. We want the adjective because in this idiom it’s used as an adjective. As an adjective ‘just’ means “exactly or equally”, “only or simply”, “merely or barely”, “almost not or almost, “very” or “fair, morally correct”. Given the context of the phrase ‘just friends’, we can discard all but one of them: only or simply. We can prove that this is the meaning used because, in context, it’s the only meaning that makes sense. I’ll demonstrate:

Context

A: Are they lovers?
B: No, they’re just friends.

Synonyms

A: Are they lovers?
B: No, they’re exactly friends.

A: Are they lovers?
B: No, they’re only friends.

A: Are they lovers?
B: No, they’re fair friends.

Only one of those synonyms provides a sensible answer to the question A is asking. But, Lynn, I hear you say. We could also replace “just” with “merely”. And we can, but that would lead us, ultimately, back down the path of “more than” that we just walked. ‘Merely’, after all, emphasises that there is nothing more to their relationship than friendship. Same meaning, different words. We’re also ignoring that ‘fair’ has more meanings than ‘just’ because context.

So our next dictionary stop is ‘only’. Again, the word has a multitude of meanings, bu the one we want is the one that says that we use it to indicate “there is a single one or very few of something, or that there are no others” and that’s… hardly helpful. In this case, looking at the synonym ‘merely’ is a better idea. We’ve already covered that a paragraph ago, but to repeat: ‘merely’ emphasises that the speaker means exactly what they’re saying and nothing else. So with ‘only friends’ we’re in the exact same boat as ‘merely’.

Except. Except. These words, like ‘less than’ imply a negative. They’re a downward idea. It’s, presumably, why saying “less than X” acquired its meaning as “lacking the good characteristics of X”.

Whichever way we want to twist and turn these phrases and whatever positive spin we want to give them, they will always contain an aspect that implies that romosexual relationships are more important than friendships because what these phrases do is posit that one is greater than the other in some way and to some degree.

So how can we deal with that? What if you are, say, a romance writer who wants to write a romance that is friendly to aromantic readers because it avoids these phrases altogether? The answer is simple: don’t use phrasing that creates a tier between friendship and romosexual relationships, but one that puts it on even footing.

For example, instead of writing a blurb for your book that ends on “could they be more than friends?” say “could their relationship be something else?” Or, instead of saying “they’re just friends”, say “they’re friends” and just… leave out the quantifier.

Though the best options are somewhat dependent on the context, it really is that simply to make sure that your language is that little bit more aro-friendly. If you’re a writer, it requires no great rewrites on your part to tweak your language to be more aro-inclusive.

It won’t solve all microaggressions. Many are a lot harder to address than these, but it’s also a lot easier to explain why those phrases are microaggressions and harmful to aromantic readers.

So I hope that was interesting and helps you figure out ways to be more aro-inclusive in your language!

Tier Benefits
Recent Posts