Why I hate the word actually

Published August 3, 2020, 4:08 AM

by AA Patawaran

INTO THE JUNGLE Weed out that pesky actually

In many cases, when I put on my editor’s hat, I gather my Fiskars machete and my Remington rifle as I prepare for the hunt.

I should say for the kill.

Every draft is a forest full not so much of predators, which I like because they are swift and they are clever and they have sharp teeth and claws, but of parasites, like viruses that infect the forest.They lurk in many parts of some sentences with enough virulence to leave the rest of the forest dull, bald, or petrified. Foremost of my quarries in these hunting expeditions is the word actually.

On vocabulary.com, actually is defined as an adverb, first as a stand-in for really, and second, as a means to imply that your expectations have been proven wrong. In its first usage, I might say, “I mean I can’t see why really should be used in formal writing, except in quotes, but actually a lot of modern books use it now.” In its second usage I might say, “I was surprised that I could find the word actually used in 10 of Elements of Style co-author E.B. White’s most quotable quotes, but actually, I was relieved it was the quote gatherer who used it to introduce White’s most famous words.”

A WRITER’S BEST FRIEND E.B. White in his office at the New Yorker magazine with his dachshund, Millie, c1955. Photo from Alamy Stock Photo

Lately, a friend of mine, bored in quarantine, asked me why I hated actually so much.

“Because it doesn’t mean anything, or because it doesn’t bring any new information,” I said.

“I was surprised. I was surprised, actually,” he said. “I think these two sentences mean differently, the first meaning I was surprised, the second meaning I was really surprised.”

“But Really,” I said, “is the younger cousin of Actually. I won’t mind it in quotes like in a snippet of casual conversation.”

You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Vladimir Nabokov

In the Oxford dictionary, the word actual means to exist or to happen in fact. There is no point for actually to make it clear that your noun exists or that your verb is happening. But when you say actually to mean that what is happening or what exists contrasts with what is intended or expected, or believed, your actually does mean something, and therefore it might elude my machete or my rifle. Let me cite an example, using my friend’s sentence: “I thought that actually is useless in any sentence, so I’m actually surprised that it’s not.”

Another friend butted in. “To me. Actually is a subtle rebuttal to an unarticulated assumption,” she said. “For example, if a friend thinks or implies in his words that I am sad, I could tell him, ‘I am not sad, actually.’”

To which I added that, used that way, with meaning, actually can also be employed to carry a load of passive-aggressive or ironic energy. In the 2003 movie Love Actually, which starred an ensemble cast led by Hugh Grant, Kiera Knightley, and Liam Neeson, the title is a reversal of the theme of lovelessness because, as the movie shows in the end, there is in fact love everywhere, even where you cannot see it.

I believe that writing is a conscious exercise. Writing to me is the act of minding a million and one details, which include tenses, subject-verb agreement, spelling, and punctuation, not to mention diction and syntax. And so I find it unacceptable that the word actually manages to slip into the written work like the non-lexical utterance um in speech disfluency. I would say that eight of 10 actuallys in writing are used as fillers, like um in The King’s Speech.

And so I sharpen my knife and load my gun. Besides, good writing has no need for pleonasm, “the use of more words or parts of words than are necessary or sufficient for clear expression.”Although it is easier said and done, I always try my best to make my nouns and verbs work hard enough that they need no help from adjectives and adverbs to do their job effectively. Adverbs are to the inarticulate what crutches are to those whose own two legs cannot take them far without help.

The rule of thumb is to omit unnecessary words. Omit words that do not bring new information. Omit words that carry no additional meaning. Omit actually, unless you know exactly why it is there, before I shoot it down or hack it to pieces.