Alex Case
The many ways to use the incredibly useful word “actually” in real communication

“Actually” is one of the most useful words in English communication, and is not studied as much as it should be. This article explains its different uses, with some comparisons to similar expressions.

“Actually” with unexpected answers and information

“Actually” is perhaps most useful as a polite way to say no where “No” might be too direct or even aggressive, as in:

  • “Are you American?”
  • “Actually, I’m Canadian”

This is part of a more general meaning of giving the response which is less expected. “Actually” can therefore can sometimes mean “Yes” if “No” is the more common answer, as in:

  • “Can I help you with anything else?”
  • “Actually, there is just more thing” (as “No, that’s all, thanks” is the more common reply)

“Actually” can also be used in statements with a similar meaning of something being unexpected. For instance, “Actually, he was really nice”/ “He was actually really nice”, could go together with or be taken to mean “although I expected him to be strict/ scary/ nasty”. This meaning of “actually” is similar to “in fact” or “in reality”.

“Actually” meaning “in the real world”

A related meaning of “actually” is in sentences like “He actually made lead into gold”. In these kinds of sentences, “actually” could express surprise but also could have the meaning of “not just theoretically”/ “in the real world”, as in “He said that he would change the world, but she actually did”. This meaning is also seen in the related words “actualise” and “actualisation”, which are about making things real/ more than just ideas.

A simpler use of “actually” to mean “in the real world” is in contradicting misconceptions, as in “Many people think that monosodium glutamate affects their health. Actually/ In reality, it’s just a placebo effect”.

“Actually” for adding stronger statements on the same side

Although it is rarer, “actually” can also be used with the non-contrastive meaning of “in fact”. For example, in “We have been thinking about this for some time. In fact/ Actually/ In actual fact, it’s our life’s ambition”, its meaning is like “To go further”/ “Indeed”.

“Actually” vs “In fact”

As shown above, “actually” and “in fact” can sometimes have the same meanings, as in “Most people agree. Actually/ In fact, 90% of people do.” However, they can also have opposite uses, especially in conversation. This can be seen in this exchange:

  • “I think we have to think about scrapping this idea”
  • “Actually, I think we can give it one more try.”/ “In fact, maybe we should decide to scrap it today.”

While there are many different ways of using these two expressions in these kinds of conversations, listeners will generally expect a sentence starting with “Actually,…” to be some kind of disagreement and expect a response starting with “In fact,…” to be a stronger statement on the same side.

Because “in fact” is often used with statements on the same side of the argument (“I am the best in town. In fact, I’m probably the best in the county”), it is quite common to put it with “but” with contradictory statements (“He said that he was the best in town, but in fact he was top ten at best”). This is also possible but less common with “actually”.

“In fact” cannot be used with the common conversational use of unexpected answers explained at the top of this article (so not “Is that all for today?” “In fact, there are a couple more…” X).

“Actually” vs “In reality”

In sentences above where both “actually” and “in reality” are possible such as “The dating profile said that he was a model. Actually/ In reality, he had only been a hand model”, “in reality” sounds much more formal or like written language, and so is much less common in speech.

Like “in fact”, “in reality” cannot be used with the common conversational use of unexpected answers explained at the top of this article (so not “Are you Mr Smith?” “In reality/ In fact, I’m Mr Jones” X).

“Actually” vs “currently”/ “presently”

In Latin languages such as French and Spanish, there are words similar to “actually” which mean “at the moment”, but in modern English “actually” is not a time expression.

Written by Alex Case for
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers

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