Well actually…


Actually has a bad rap. “Actually, the Worst Word on the Planet is Actually,” claimed The Atlantic a couple of years ago. Just saying the word seems to mean that you’re being snarky or passive-aggressive, that you’ve got a superiority complex, or that you might be telling a big fat lie. But can some of us be forgiven for using it habitually, even if it can mean any one of these things?

In its pure, literal sense, the adverb actually means “really”, “in truth” or “in fact“. “Let’s listen to the words he is actually saying.” But as unambiguous as its actual meaning is, actually is often used to express something quite different from — or more murky than — the simple truth.

In its most benign form, actually can draw attention to information added to something already stated, as a kind of nondescript “by the way” or “for your information” marker: “He had a thick Brooklyn accent; he sounded like my grandfather, actually.” 

But actually starts to get interesting when it serves its most common alternative purpose — of presenting a contrast to an existing fact, truth or assumption. And it does this in fairly subtle ways, to varying degrees. As a synonym of the emphatic really, actually can stress or posit an alternative that might not be popular or obvious: “We should actually be watching the Presidential address rather than the Homeland finale.” It can be used to introduce or warn of an opinion that isn’t necessarily expected, or, as the OED  says, it might be added to vouch for statements that seem surprising, incredible or exaggerated. Dickens gave us an example when Mrs. Nickleby said: “I had a cold once, I think it was in the year 1817, … that I thought I should never get rid of; actually and seriously that I thought I should never get rid of.” H.W. Fowler sniffed at the word, noting that “many people today seem to find it impossible to trust any assertion, however commonplace, to be believed without this warranty.” 

Taking this sense of contrast to a more forceful extreme, actually can introduce a contradictory opinion, and — with or without intent — it can pack a hell of a punch when used to correct someone.“Tom seems to be happy,” Dick remarked. “He isn’t, actually,” Jane replied. “Not any more.” Whoa, Jane. Whoa.

It’s this last sense that makes so many people want to see the word eradicated from our language, regarding it as nothing but negative and mean-spirited. In the anti-actually Atlantic article mentioned above, Jen Doll argued that actually is like the ugly stepsister of literally, with a passive-aggressive stance that implies stupidity or inferiority on the part of the listener or reader: “While literally and actually can be used interchangeably, actually has a bad attitude. Literally can be mocked and laughed at, because literally almost no one uses it correctly. Actually is more sneaky, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Actually is the word that you use when you’re actually saying, ‘You are wrong, and I am right, and you are at least a little bit of an idiot.’ (Actually, my name is Jen, not Jane.) The fact that it often comes out so passive aggressively makes it worse than literally, too.”  Social Media Week in its recent article Why I Stopped Using These Two Words in My E-Mails (and you can guess what one of those words was) recommended that we drop the offending adverb from all online communications, for the same reasons laid out by Doll in The Atlantic. “At Buffer, we have found that there is a small band of words that takes away from your message, and ‘actually’ is their leader. It almost doesn’t matter how good the news is; if it comes after ‘actually’, I feel like I was somehow wrong about something.” And even though H.W. Fowler filed actually away in his meaningless words corner, he read enough into it to characterize its use and user as such: ”The superior-indulgent of course. It seems absurd to tell you but he half-hopes you do not know.”

Then there’s the matter of actually suggesting the opposite of its actual meaning — that is, not the whole truth (or everything but the truth). Like glancing up to your left or fiddling with your earlobe, using the word actually in certain contexts or situations might actually give you away when you’re telling a porkie. As an article in Time suggested last year, “For the experienced listener, “actually” is a dead giveaway of an area that at the least needs to be further investigated, and may point at a deception.” Take the following example: “‘What were you doing on Saturday night?’ asked the policeman. ‘I actually went to the theater,’ answered Joe Bloggs.” Since actually suggests a contrast to something assumed to be true, Joe appears to be contradicting the “real” truth by saying actually — and so he has cast suspicion on his own whereabouts.

Actually, let’s just stop for a minute and think about who tends to use this word often. It’s actually — or should we say “EK-chill-lee”* — us Brits who pepper our sentences regularly with the adverb. We start a lot of our sentences with actually as an introductory filler that serves the same purpose as expressions like “here’s the thing”, “look”, or “I mean”. We tag it on the end of sentences to bring them to a less abrupt close. Could it be that actually is popular with the Brits because we have a tendency to say the opposite of what we’re actually thinking — as Joe Bloggs might have been doing above? Are we naturally contrary? Is it a particularly British form of passive-aggression, or does it appeal to our native sense of irony? I’m inclined to say none of the above: I believe it’s simply a popular British filler, which has got itself an especially bad rap on the other side of the Atlantic.

Let’s give the floor now to the late great William Saffire, who wrote a comprehensive and characteristically lively overview of actually in the New York Times in 1998:  

“Alistair Cooke…calls them tics, filler words as ubiquitous and unnecessary as I mean and y’know. … Should we condemn actually as meaningless, overworked and obfuscatory, an affected form of y’know?… No. In its nonliteral form, and when not interjected as mere filler, actually is a subtle device, used differently in British and American English. … I would readily use actually (more in speaking than in writing) as a signal conveying a shade of meaning outside the normal semantic rules. Like a raised eyebrow, a shrug or a pleased wriggle, actually contributes to understanding the speaker’s meaning.”

Saffire cites Cooke in summing up this most opaque English word, whose dual personality of meaningless filler and villainous aggressor gives it such an important place in our vocabulary.

“But it is not always meaningless. ‘The British tic,’ Cooke explains, ‘can also be used to show that all alone, the speaker has come through a rather difficult personal conflict and made a positive, mature decision, e.g., ‘What would you like to drink?’ ‘I’d like a Scotch, actually.”’

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* Saffire’s witty pronunciation guide.