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Victor Mair recently told me about someone who began a letter to him in a way that struck him as odd:

"I actually have a pseudo linguistics question for you about the title of the Manchu emperor."

Victor was surprised by this use of actually. He added:

The next day, my sister from Seattle, who was visiting us in Swarthmore after attending the inauguration in DC, happened to complain about this very usage of "actually" among our nieces and nephews and their friends (when they are expressing an opinion).

Actually, these two senses of actually are worth distinguishing. And this is not just my opinion — I'm relying on the analysis in Uta Lenk's 1998 dissertation, Marking Discourse Coherence: Functions of Discourse Markers in Spoken English.

Lenk starts by distinguishing "propositional" uses of actually, which contribute something to the content of the proposition being expressed, from "discourse marker" uses, which instead serve to indicate the relationship of the utterance to the surrounding discourse. In the conversational corpora that she examined, she found that about half of the instances of actually were propositional and half were discourse markers.

In Lenk's analysis, actually has a number of different propositional senses: "to indicate that a situation exists or happened, or to emphasize that it is true or correct"; as a way to indicate surprise; and simply as an intensifier.

She identifies three different "discourse marker" uses: with objections; as an opinion marker; and to introduce a topic shift.

For marking objections, she quotes Tognini-Bonelli (1993) that actually

is probably the most common device available to a speaker who wishes to make his/her own perspective stand out with respect to the general, and more common, consensus-based view, or to other preceding textual claims or events. Because of this, the use of actually is also a very common way of implicitly acknowledging what has gone on before, that is paying lip-service either to another participant's contribution or to one's own stated position before going on to contradict it or correct it in some way.

With respect to actually as an opinion marker, Lenk notes that

When looking at the conversations, it turns out that actually is used not only when somebody is expressing an opinion "that had not been expected in a polite way", but in situations where people express personal opinions in general. Thus actually does not necessarily mark the fact that an unexpected opinion is being expressed politely, but rather that now some personal opinion is being expressed at all.

And she motivates the "topic shift" function of actually with an example that is rather like Victor's:

The third discourse marker function of actually is located on a higher structural level in the discourse than the other two are, and signals the introduction of a new topic into the conversation.

The function of actually as a marker of topic shift of change is clearly recognizable in instances where it appears initially in the turn of a person who had not been speaking before and whose contribution introduces a new topic or shifts the old topic.

She quotes an example from her corpus where "speaker B uses actually in the very early phase of a telephone conversation even prior to self-identification". In somewhat simplified typography, her transcription of this conversation is:

A: hello
B: Charlie
A: yes
B: actually it's me
A: hello Karen

As she explains:

All three discourse marker functions [opinion, contradiction, new topic] can be taken to have a common core meaning of 'stating something in an unexpected way, manner or position'.

The common core function of actually as a discourse marker presumably stems from the etymology of the word, which is a derivation from the word actual with the meaning 'existing in act or fact; real' (SOED 23). This would make the meaning of the discourse marker a signal that upgrades the following opinion — be it a mere statement or a full-blown contradiction — into a 'fact of reality'. As a marker of topic shift, actually marks the upcoming topic as 'more real, more acute, more relevant than the prior topic' in the speaker's mind at that particular moment.

So on Lenk's analysis, Victor's correspondent was using actually to (redundantly) mark a new topic and indeed a new conversation; and Victor's sister is also correct that actually is often used to mark the expression of an opinion; but these two things, though related through their common historical relation to the concept of "existing in act or fact", are not quite the same.

Changing the topic and expressing an opinion at the same time, let me note that Lenk's dissertation, published in 1998 by Gunter Narr Verlag, is actually now out of print and not easy to find — says "We're sorry, no results were found", for example. Isn't it past time for our field to abandon the increasingly empty gesture of publishing excellent works in ways that leave them orphaned within a decade, and instead to deposit digital copies in web-accessible archives?

And finally, let me know that the term discourse marker was introduced into the field by none other than frequent LL poster Arnold Zwicky ("Clitics and particles", Language 61(2): 283-305, 1985):

5. DISCOURSE MARKERS IN ENGLISH (AND IN GENERAL). Within the great collection of things that have been labeled 'particles', we find at least one grammatically significant class of items, in English and in languages generally. These have been variously termed 'discourse particles' and 'interjections'; here I will call them 'discourse markers'.7 On the grounds of distribution, prosody, and meaning, discourse markers can be seen to form a class.

7 My use of the term 'discourse particles' (following Schourup 1983) in earlier versions of this article — which is, after all, designed to demonstrate that there is no unified class comprising the things that have been called 'particles' — was perhaps infelicitous. I have now opted for terminology that entirely avoids 'particle' as (any part of) a technical expression.

Actually, in that paper Arnold used "discourse marker" for things like "(certain instances of) well, hey, okay, oh, yes, like, y'know, no, uh, now, say, why, look, listen, and please", rather than for discourse-related adverbials like actually; but the field has decided it's useful to extend the term on the grounds of meaning rather than restricting it on the basis of distribution and prosody.

Post-finally, I can't resist quoting a nice use of phrase-final actually as an intensifier, from a Roz Chast cartoon illustrating "The Berlitz Guide to Parent-Teacher Conferences":

Teacherese English
Marches to a different drummer. Nuts.
Needs to brush up on his people skills. Homicidal.
Creative. None too bright.
Very creative. A moron, actually.
She's a riot! I can't stand her.
He's doing just fine. What's your kid's name again?

Actually is actually very common in  New Yorker cartoon text.


  1. perceval said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 6:41 am

    Actually (objection use of discourse marker), it's not really the field itself that has to change – it's academic rituals in German humanities in general. You actually (propositional sense) have to publish your dissertation before being granted your Ph.D. Heck, I was only allowed to call myself "doctor designatus" (doctor (pending)) after my dissertation had been submitted successfully for publication (!!!). Whether online publication is acceptable and/or feasible depends on your university's policies. Hence the cottage industry of small publishing houses that actually (surprise, propositional) make a living from being paid by doctoral students to publish their dissertations. I actually (propositional, statement of fact) managed to publish mine online at the University of Bonn in 2000 using a service they had introduced recently, but being published by somebody like Benjamins still has major clout.

    And don't get me started on the Habilitation …

  2. John Cowan said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    Too late now, eh?

  3. KYL said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    Actually, now I'm very curious. What is the title of the Manchu Emperor? And what was the question to Victor? I think a follow-up post from Victor is required.

  4. Merri said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    Strangely, the same ornamental use of a confirmation marker does exist in French ('en fait', very similar in meaning to 'actually'), as well as in Ancient Egyptian ('yw' became necessary at the beginning of every main clause).

    Since this effect, in French, is especially apparent in young Maghrebians' (and their friends') speech, I'm wondering whether it could have been prompted by Arabic.

    Arabic is mainly VSO, but you may use SVO, provided (correct me if I'm wrong) :
    1. You put the subject into the accusative ;
    2. You use 'hinne' (formally, a confirmation marker) before it.
    That is, in classical Arabic at least, because modern colloquial Arabic is becoming more and more SVO.

    Could it be that 'en fait' and 'actually' actually be a calque from Arabic ? Or is it too far-fetched ?

  5. Karen said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    The "actually" in Victor's correspondence is also often used to open email from a stranger by saying "This email has a purpose, I am not simply bothering you."

  6. James C. said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

    Following Karen, this "actually" seems to serve as an indicator that the writer actually has a question directly related to the recipient's field of study, rather than being general pleasantries, administrivia, or some other topic.

  7. Bob Ladd said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

    A usage of actually I've noticed repeatedly in Scotland – I don't know if it's uniquely Scottish – is almost apologetic; it seems to convey an acknowledgement that what the speaker is saying is some kind of imposition on the hearer. (This is how I read the opening sentence in the email to Victor Mair). Once at a supermarket a customer behind me was starting to unload groceries onto the checkout belt, failing to notice the "CLOSED" sign, and the checkout cashier said "Sorry, we're actually closed". Somehow the actually mitigates the inconvenience by suggesting that the speaker can't help it. An even better example was something said to me at a post office here when I was sending a package somewhere abroad – there was some sort of misunderstanding about what was in it or how I wanted to send it, and the post office clerk, as a way of starting the whole transaction over, asked me "Where's it actually going?" (I resisted the temptation to say, "Well, that depends on you, doesn't it".)
    Has anyone else noticed this usage?

  8. Mabon said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

    I used to treat the word "actually" coming up in odd places in a conversation as an unintended indicator that what follows is not quite truthful, as if the speaker who uses it is unconsciously communicating "I want you to think that this is "actually" the truth, even though it actually [as in factually] is not." That is, it is used to provide emphasis, as if that alone might make it more truthful in the ears of the listener.

    Of course, treating a person's use of "actually" in this way — as a sort of lie detector — now has become a less reliable indicator due to its growing use, especially among younger speakers, as an insipid place-marker. Nevertheless, it still raises a red flag when I hear it.

    Having said all this, I'm sure I've been guilty of this usage myself.

  9. Robert F said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

    "En fait" has a directly corresponding English phrase, "in fact". "In fact" has a more restricted use than actually though.

  10. Kuz said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

    Bob Ladd: Once at a supermarket a customer behind me was starting to unload groceries onto the checkout belt, failing to notice the "CLOSED" sign, and the checkout cashier said "Sorry, we're actually closed". Somehow the actually mitigates the inconvenience by suggesting that the speaker can't help it.

    I don't think I agree with your interpretation of this usage. In my opinion (and I've said similar things before) it goes like this–Customer is acting as if the store is open–she is doing things you would only do when the store was open, not just, for instance, walking up to a store has just closed (when the response would be "Sorry, the store is closed" etc). Since the customer is inside and actually performing actions, the cashier is then saying–you can't do that because the store is not open, it is closed–your actions are incorrect.

    To clarify a little, if somebody is walking up to a closed store, I think it's proper to say "Sorry, we're closed" rather than "sorry we're actually closed." If somebody has just taken a cart and is walking INSIDE a closed store, the response could be "sorry, we're actually closed." IMHO it has to do with the action being performed. I guess this would fall in with the intensifier theory…

    I also agree that the interpretation of the original email was perhaps not correct. I go with the "I actually have a question (instead of just wasting your time!)" theory.

  11. dr pepper said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

    There's also "actually" to introduce a contrary position. "Obama is the most genuine speaker i've ever heard." "Actually, he's nothing more than an accomplished bull slinger."

  12. hsknotes said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 5:02 am

    Ok. As a native United Statesian English speaker, I'm acutely aware of this "actually" usage and use it most often without ever thinking about it. When I read the Mair example, I thought, yes, that's exactly right, and that's exactly one way it is used. I know this "actually" usage is odd and non-standard because while speaking chinese before for a teacher training group I pretty much began my self-introduction with an "actually" chinese (其实, qi4shi4) and the moderator immediately interrupted me and commented on that strange usage before me and the teachers.

    Like the Mair example, the "actually" here is not so much a marker of "in fact" or "in reality". It is really, as the sister pointed out, often just used to introduce an opinion. It seems, and this is my hypothesis, that we got so used to using "actually" when commenting/expressing an opinion out of the mainstream, or expressing a level of disagreement, that we simply brought this marker into all related (or close enough) commenting cases where actually seems to "work". In some sense maybe we lost the ability or don't want to or feel that we shouldn't determine everywhere if we are disagreeing or expressing reservations, etc. I think this phenomenon actually has a good deal to do with the politically-correctification of at least american discourse where things like:

    I feel like maybe you shouldn't do that.

    have become the norm to express (I don't think you should do that.)

    Example of what I'm talking about.

    Person makes first comment: Racism mostly emerges from ignorance.
    Second person comments: Actually, I think it's emerges mostly from upbringing.

    This "actually" usage would seem to at least make some "normal" logical sense to stricter users of "actually." What I'm arguing is that, even when we agree, and there is no "turn" of meaning" or "going against something", we still freely use actually to simply comment, because the structure of a response calls or "feels right" to have a word like actually there.

    1: Where do you think racism emerges from?
    2. Actually, I think, racism comes out of ignorance.

    Here, the responder isn't pushing out something that is up against some mainstream view and he isn't really saying 'In reality' or 'In fact' in any sort of technical or scientific sense, he's just got an 'Umm"-like placeholder to introduce a point of view. I know this because I ACTUALLY USE actually this way.

  13. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

    Bob Ladd: I am Canadian, not Scottish, and my immediate reaction upon reading your comment was that I agree that "actually" sometimes has a quasi-apologetic tone.

    I can easily imagine being, say, at a bar, ordering Tankhouse Ale, and hearing the server say "Actually, we're out of Tankhouse."

  14. Mr Punch said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    Roz Chast's "actually" is actually Lenk's #1 (Tognini-Bonelli) type — a contrast to the more moderate prior statement. The intensification lies in the shift from "none too bright" to "a moron"

  15. Melissa said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    I took the "actually" in the original email to refer to the fact that he was asking a "pseudo" linguistics question, rather than, as might be expected, a "regular" or "real" linguistics question.

  16. Altissima said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

    I recently read Martin Amis's "Dead Babies" and was struck by the frequent and non-standard use of the "actually" by the character Giles. Unfortunately this book is not fully searchable in Google Books, and I have returned my copy to the library, so I can't provide a specific example. Giles seemed to use "actually" as a meaningless discourse marker in the sense of "like" or "say".

  17. Adam said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 7:19 am

    Agreeing with Bob Ladd, the usage first quoted does seem like an apology for the coming topic shift or reversal. It reminded me of the habit of a friend of mine, who is from northern England but lives in New York, of prefacing a possibly controversial statement or request with "You know what?" This would be used, for example, when changing an order in a restaurant, or when asking a host for something that might be a slight imposition. I can hear "actually" working the same way. An undertone is that the "You know what?" can come across as quite assertive, in a sort of passive-aggressive way: I feel a bit embarrassed about asking for this, but actually I do need it. Heh – there's "actually" flip-flopping between mollifying and intensifying again.

  18. hsknotes said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 10:05 am

  19. Irene said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    To me, actually can be used as a mild insult. Careless customer enters a closed line, so cashier says, "Actually, this line is closed (which you would have known if you could read. Or maybe you just don't care!)

    Or, my friend comments that Sally has nice, natural hair. I reply in a conspiratorial tone, "Actually, it's dyed."

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