Again, actually

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Following up on the discussion of "Actually" as a discourse marker, let me direct you to Rebecca Clift, "Meaning in interaction: the case of actually", Language 772(2): 245-291, 2001. Her abstract:

One aspect of the relationship between meaning and interaction is explored here by taking the English particle actually, which is characterized by flexibility of syntactic position, and investigating its use in a range of interactional contexts. Syntactic alternatives in the form of clause-initial or clause-final placement are found to be selected by reference to interactional exigencies. The temporally situated, contingent accomplishment of utterances in turns and their component turn-constructional units shows the emergence of meaning across a conversational sequence; it reveals syntactic flexibility as both a resource to be exploited for interactional ends and a constraint on that interaction.

She cites a detailed subdivision of possible positions, from Karin Aijmer's 1986 paper "Why is actually so popular in spoken English?" (Tottie and Backlund, eds., English in speech and writing):

In principle, this ought to allow actually to exhibit the subtle exuberance of like, as in this example from a paper by Muffy Siegel that I cited a few years go:

She isn't, like, really crazy or anything, but her and her, like, five buddies did, like, paint their hair a really fake-looking, like, purple color.

So far, I've only managed to find on the net a few embryonic examples on the web, all combining initial actually with another one somewhere in the pre-verbal aux string (Google will give you the sources of these):

actually she might have actually been her
actually, erik actually got the rotate 0 bug licked
Actually, she didn't actually run with the bulls.
actually I never actually did care, either way, about things like that
Well, actually, he's actually come out and substantiated it and said that was him and he was drunk.

And unlike the cited multiple-like example, these are all cases where the two instances of actually have different functions. Of course, examples of multiple-actually with shared function are not hard to find — here the three instances of actually are all intensifiers:

Nathaniel Hawkins (one of the loveliest, funniest stylists ever to touch Paris Hilton's head) says the most important thing to getting an actually straight, actually unfrizzy, actually long-lasting blowout is that you MUST GET YOUR HAIR ABSOLUTELY, COMPLETELY, TOTALLY DRY.

It's also not hard to find paired instances of actually in subordinate and main clauses (full or small):

…a strategy that might have actually worked had he actually done it once things got going.
…do you think he might have actually spent some resources actually investigating the book's claims…
…you might have actually cooked something that actually tastes like food…
…they might have actually found time to actually prove/disprove that subluxations exist…

There ought to be plenty of examples of final actually combined with one in a medial position, or even multiple medial instances, e.g. "It was was not actually as enjoyable as it actually might have been, actually". No doubt some of you will be able to find them.

[Another corpus-based study of actually is Sun-Young Oh, "Actually and in fact in American English: a data-based analysis", English Language and Linguistics 4(2): 243-268, 2000.]


  1. Nathan said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    I'll say it's syntactically flexible! You can even use the adjective form and still get the same actual meaning, as in "We figured they were more actual guidelines." from the film Pirates of the Caribbean.

    Googling for "Actually, I'm not actually" gets a few actual good hits, and "Actually, they're not actual" actually gets two.

  2. James C. said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    “Actually, it actually was actually not actually as actually enjoyable actually as it actually might actually have actually been, actually”. I think the fact that sentences like this don’t occur might be phonologically motivated: “actually” is at least two or three syllables [ˈæktʃəli], [ˈækʃli]. In contrast “like” is only one syllable.

    In other news, I disagree with her judgement of where actually can be inserted.

    *“It was not as enjoyable as actually it might have been.”

    for me, but

    “It was not as actually enjoyable as it might have been.”

    I’m not sure why. Does the insertion depend on syntax? It seems awfully free, actually.

  3. Marguerite said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    I had a friend do the same with "only" — "The clown put his finger in the midget's eye," with "only" placed in every location. It was great!

  4. Jim said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    The way I hear it overused it sounds almost as if it is some kind of free-floating sentence particle, final particle that carries the sense that the speaker thinks what she/he is saying is counter-expectational.

  5. Nathan Myers said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

    Jim: I think you're close. The speaker is using "actually" to keep us from falling asleep or wandering off before he or she is finished speaking.

  6. Adama said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

    "This is Galactica Actual. Let's quit this grammar lesson and get out there to kill some Toasters!"

  7. Aaron Davies said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    must be bill, lee would have said frakkin' toasters

  8. Aaron Davies said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    @marguerite: doesn't work at the end. otherwise, beautiful

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