Is "actually" the new "like"?
The innocuous little adverb was originally used to mean "in fact" -- "That tree is actually a fir, not a pine." Or to express surprise or incredulity -- "I actually won the lottery!" (Both examples from American Heritage Dictionary.)
It has come to mean just about everything. Or nothing.
"A prime example of a contagious trend of overused verbiage," says Urban Dictionary, which offers the following anecdote, by way of example.
Mom: "Ashley, what color would you like to paint that mug for Grandma?"
Ashley: "Actually, I think pink would be nice. Actually, no, maybe blue would be better."
Mom: "I think either would be great."
Ashley: "Actually, I think Grandma would actually like both colors together. Actually, maybe we could call her and ask what she would like more."
Mom: "Well then it wouldn't be a surprise."
Ashley: "Actually, you're right. Actually I think I'll just use both colors."
One longtime editor at the Tribune told us she remembers being told by her supervisor to hunt down the word mercilessly and kill it, no questions asked.
"He told me to excise 'actually' from every story because it didn't add anything or serve any purpose or change the meaning in any way," she says.
Pam Nelson, a 30-year veteran of copy editing who blogs for The American Copy Editors Society, says she never received such an edict, but she's aware of a fervent anti-actually bias.
"I checked some usage books and found 'actually' indeed criticized as an overused, meaningless intensifier," she says.
One such usage book, "Fowler's Modern English Usage," has this to say: "One of a number of adverbs (definitely, really, surely, etc.) that at present tend to be overused as emphasizers. ... The problem is how to bring about a reduction in the low-key devices that litter the language, particularly in spoken English."
OK, maybe that doesn't qualify as a fervent anti-actually bias. Particularly when you consider that Fowler's calls "like" "a hated parenthetical use." ("By the mid-20th century, its use as an incoherent and prevalent filler had reached the proportions of an epidemic, and it is now scorned by standard speakers as a vulgarism of the first order," the guide admonishes.)
And "actually" still has its share of defenders -- Nelson among them.
"I am not fond of editors' edicts forbidding certain words," she says. "If a sentence is flabby, tighten it, but don't start by whacking out every adverb.
"Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage tackles 'actually' and, as usual, finds much to criticize in the criticism of 'actually,' " Nelson says. "I like this quote: 'Where these words (actual and actually) do not add much to meaning, they often improve the rhythm of a sentence and help set off the more important words effectively.' "
Perhaps a more judicious sprinkling of the word throughout conversation is the answer.
Steve Kleinedler, American Heritage Dictionary executive editor, actually (we know) vowed to make 2012 the year he cut down on his "actually" reliance.
"I use it too much in writing and I find myself using it too often in interviews," he told us back in January. "That's pretty boring but it's actually something I need to work on!"
We checked in this week to see how that was going.
"I continue to delete 'actually' when I edit email drafts," he reports. "I'm pleased to report that I'm using it less than I used to. It's my hope that this means I'm using it less frequently in speech as well."
Of course, that leaves room for other words to creep in where actually once lived.
"Unbelievably, I find 'totally' cropping up in my pre-edited writing far more than it used to, as though it's 1984 again," he says. "I'm attacking that with equal fervor."