For a 2000 paper titled “Actually and other markers of an apparent discrepancy between propositional attitudes of conversational partners,” linguists Sara Smith and Andreas Jucker studied the conversational use of the word actually among friends and strangers at the University of California Long Beach. The researchers wanted to better understand "discourse markers": Words or phrases that help organize our speech and writing, but which aren't essential to a sentence's meaning.
Examples of discourse markers include well, nonetheless, like, basically, I mean, okay. But Smith and Jucker were primarily interested in actually, and in ten hours of recorded conversations among students they counted 78 uses of the word as a discourse marker. Smith, a professor of linguistics at UCLB, said she and her colleague presumed actually would be used to disprove facts, but instead the speakers most often used the word to discount attitudes or opinions.
“We found that in many cases the claims with which the partner disagreed had never been stated or even clearly implied,” Smith told me in an email. “Rather the partner was drawing an inference based on subtle cues or social norms about what the partner would believe was then signaling a disagreement with that.” Actually, when used as discourse marker (and often as a proposition, i.e. “I actually think we should order pizza instead."), has come to signal a difference of opinion, not facts.
Whereas basically and well are relatively harmless tics that crowd our sentences, actually has an attitude. Consider this recent headline from Business Insider: "Women in Tech Actually Don’t Get Paid Less Than Men." Or Maureen Dowd's defense of Barack Obama after Sarah Palin accused him of “wearing mom jeans”: “Actually, the jeans the president wore in the Oval Office, talking to Putin on the phone last weekend, looked good.”
Especially on the Internet, a platform where everyone is trying to stake an intellectual claim in comments sections or on Twitter, actually often expresses a very specific attitude: condescension. Salon contributor Roxane Gay, a writing professor at Eastern Illinois University, told me in an email, “When people use the word actually in many contexts, they are implying that they have exclusive access to a font of incontrovertible knowledge. When they actually you, they are offering you a gift.”
To find an example, Gay need look no further than the comments on her own articles. In a recent piece about the sexual abuse allegations against Woody Allen, commenter Rrhain wrote, "Mia actually encouraged the two to spend time together when Soon-Yi was an adult. What other facts are you unaware of?" Asked who is fond of actuallying her, Gay said that it’s “mostly men who are deeply passionate about ‘truth’ and ‘fairness’ and justice.’”
Uttering (or typing) actually at another person in pursuit of truth, fairness, and justice is a relatively new phenomenon. Google's Ngram Viewer, which charts the historical use of words and phrases in books, shows that printed use of actually has climbed steadily over the last two centuries. There's a caveat: This includes all uses of the word, not just in the grammatical instances being discussed here. But consider that its more pointed counterpart, well actually—which is most often used in such instances—has seen an extreme rise since the 1980s.
Studies show that younger people are far more likely to use actually. From 2003-2004, linguist Cathleen Waters weighed data from a 1.7 million-word corpus of spoken English from Toronto, Canada, and found a steady increase in the word as age decreases. With the information collected from sociolinguistic interviews with 115 speakers, Waters published a 2008 paper called “Actually, it’s more than pragmatics, it’s really grammaticalization.”
She found that the median rate of the use of actually among speakers ages 70-92 was 0.4 times per 1,000 words. In contrast, it was more than 1.5 times per 1,000 words for those between 18-39.
According to Waters, speakers between the ages of 18-30 use actually at an even higher rate than the 18-39 age group: an average rate of 2.24 occurrences per 1,000 words. Waters believes this is because actually has replaced older phrases like indeed and in fact through a gradual linguistic process called grammaticalization, wherein once-novel words become part of a speaker’s register. The Ngram Viewer backs up that argument:
Actually's popularity seems only to have increased since 2008, when Waters' essay was published. It's become especially popular in partisan battles over issues ranging from Obamacare to gun control. “I think the term actually is thought to be [used by] a group that trolls Twitter as fact-checkers, but in fact that’s not always the way it’s used,” said Kira Hall, professor of Linguistics and Anthropology at University of Colorado Boulder. “And if it is, fact-checking is happening from conservative to liberal stances as well as from liberal to conservative stances.” Consider this Slate headline from earlier this year: “Actually, Electric Cars Are good for the planet.” Or this one from The Weekly Standard: "Actually, Hamas Killed the Palestinian Baby." Or this one from The New Republic: "Actually, You Can't Just 'Restore' Cancelled Health Plans."
The use of actually has become so common, in fact, that it has become the source of humor and satire. Usage varies, but tweets bearing the hashtag #actually often aren't factual challenges but rather jokes about the petty overuse of the word itself.
"someone on the internet is being factually incorrect & i MUST rectify this" - Someone about to make an #actually tweet— Desus (@desusnice) August 22, 2013
Roses are red Violets are #ACTUALLY violet, not blue, am I the only one who remembers ROY G BIV— Meagan Hatcher-Mays (@ohmeags) February 14, 2014
The #WellActually hashtag, meanwhile, serves a different purpose: to mock or criticize Twitter users who are fond of using “Well, actually…” in picking fights.
there is a whole category of people on Twitter that never talk except to #wellactually, it's so funny. *cues thinkpiece*— kate losse (@katelosse) March 3, 2014
Well, Kate Losse, here's your thinkpiece—and it's as good a sign as any that it's time to retire actually. The word has become so ubiquitous, and so abused, that its use barely registers a sting anymore. Before long, like literally before it, actually may lose its meaning altogether. Jessica Luther, a writer and prolific Twitter user whose position on reproductive rights has drawn quite a few actuallys, summed it perfectly for me: “It’s one of those words you see and you know you’re not going anywhere productive afterwards.”