Appearing most frequently at the beginning of sentences, つい
is a 副詞（ふくし） (adverb) that may be translated as ‘accidentally’, ‘unconsciously’, ‘absentmindedly’, or ‘against one’s better judgment’. つい
will often be paired with statements that use てしまう
, to emphasize that something was unintentional.
Sorry Takeshi-kun, your cookie was right in front of me, so I absentmindedly ate it.
When I am being scolded by the teacher, I accidentally laugh.
I know that I shouldn't use my phone while driving, but when I get a text I unconsciously look at my phone.
Although ‘accidentally’ is the most common meaning of つい
, it actually may be used to convey three different nuances. These are as follows:
はからず - Something that is uncalculated.
思（おも）わず - Something that is not thought about.
わずかなさま - A small gap/interval.
In each of these meanings, つい
keeps a sense of time being the most important factor. Due to this, つい
will give the impression that whatever resulted in the ‘accidental’ action, will be something that happened momentarily. This is very close to the meaning of ‘lapse’ in English. ‘a lapse in time’, ‘a lapse in judgment’, ‘a lapse in forethought’.
Even if I wake up early to get ready, I’ll be late due to a lapse of time.
When the train is late, I’ll get angry due to a lapse in judgment.
Even if I am not hungry, if there is food in front of me, I will eat it due to a lapse of forethought.