I work at a digital marketing agency. We have a rule at our agency: don’t write or say actually.
Maybe this isn’t a rule in an official sense. But maybe it is. And maybe it should be.
The word actually offers nothing. Actually reinforces nothing. Actually clarifies nothing. But you see it and hear it everywhere. Its definition, according to a quick Google search, is:
So you use actually when… what you are saying is true?
I became aware of it when one of the managers at our agency did a training on client service. He compared actually to the other dreaded filler word you hear constantly in the agency world: kinda.
There is no reason for me to write an entire entry on Needless Words about kinda. Everyone knows they shouldn’t say kinda while everyone says kinda. People in marketing say things like I’m kinda the strategist on your account. People in academics say things like We’ll kinda be reading Steinbeck this semester. People on podcasts say kinda every fourth word, in sentences like I’m kinda appalled by this new policy. The only people who don’t say kinda are politicians, at least not effective ones.
Toastmasters don’t say kinda either. If I ever join Toastmasters, it will be so I can weekly join a world without kinda.
Back to actually. Actually is as useful as kinda but the trouble is some people don’t view it that way. They think it helps them. They mistake it for a friend. They think it puts weight behind their other words.
In the first chapter of Dreyer’s English—a book worth reading, mostly—Dreyer gives a list of 12 words you should try to remove from your writing, if only for a week.
The 12th word on the list is actually. What he says is:
Feel free to go the rest of your life without another “actually.”
Later, he adds:
…I hereby pledge that this is the last time you’ll see the word “actually” in this book.
In a footnote, he adds:
…seriously, it serves no purpose I can think of except to irritate.
In the months since reading Dreyer’s English and attending the presentation that included “don’t say actually,” I have noticed it everywhere, including in some of the best books I’ve read lately. Ta-Nehisi Coates uses it in We Were Eight Years in Power. Jenny Odell uses it in How to Do Nothing. Roddy Doyle uses it. Joan Didion uses it. James Baldwin uses it. Everyone uses it.
Which might suggest that Dreyer is wrong. I don’t think he is. Because I cannot find any use for actually. I cannot imagine a sentence that becomes strong when actually is there. It undermines in the same way that honestly does, where the sudden appearance of this word meant to strengthen makes you wonder why the author found it needed.
- The zoo is actually open.
- We actually use Google Analytics.
- I’m actually very happy to be here tonight.
- You actually did a very good job during that meeting.
- I actually don’t know.
- I actually thought very hard about this.
- That was actually a very good speech you gave.
- Franz Ferdinand actually died before World War I started.
- The South actually lost the war.
- Stephen King is actually a good writer.
It does nothing but fluff out the sentence or, worse, sew further doubt in the mind of the reader (or listener.) If this is actually true, then actually why are you saying actually? Are you correcting someone, something? Correcting yourself? Keeping yourself honest?
It is like the moment when someone says “Let me be honest with you…” or “to be entirely candid..” You cannot help but wonder, were you not being honest before?
And then there is this dreaded iteration of actually. As if the above were not argument enough, consider the recent identification of actually as something that pairs with mansplaining. A bellwether for an approaching storm of corrections. One Urban Dictionary definition calls it the “battle cry of the mansplainer” and loops it in with “to be fair” and “not all”.
This tweet turns it into a punchline:
More examples—and discussions of the dreaded “Well, Actually” guy can be found in:
- This SyFy article about mansplaining in comics uses it in the headline (although, note the article still uses actually as an ordinary word in the article.)
- The blog post Confessions of a “Well, Actually…” Guy is one man’s look back at his life being one of those guys. He doesn’t use the word mansplain, but also he doesn’t really have to. It’s about his path toward correcting people less and recognizing “well, actually” isn’t a great thing to say.
- There’s even the episode of The Office where Oscar is revealed to be an actually guy.
- The only ostensibly positive use of “actually” in pop culture that I can think of is Hugh Grant’s monologue at the beginning of Love Actually.
Perhaps the breakdown is this: actually in a sentence does nothing for it. Actually at the beginning of the sentence loses your audience before you can begin, as it implies something unpleasant is on its way.
Actually has become so loaded with baggage and negative connotations that it’s best to go without, unless you’re using it in dialogue, referring to Love Actually or discussing Well, Actually guys.
Oh, and regarding Love Actually.
I still like that scene, but I think the monologue would be a lot stronger without the word actually in it. The one defense is it does make it seem like a more authentic piece of dialogue. People do say actually a lot.
I will wait for the day I encounter a sentence that needs an actually. This is not to say that I am a better writer than James Baldwin or Joan Didion. Maybe that is the exact reason I cannot and should not use actually. I cannot get away with it. When actually snuck into writing as good as theirs, it could lie low, going unnoticed in a sea of otherwise perfect prose.
For now, I will continue to pause every time I see an actually and do one simple thing: Read the sentence with the actually is omitted and note how much stronger it becomes.