The cover of the Pet Shop Boys album “Actually”.
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“Actually” is the most futile, overused word on the internet

Whereas “basically” and “well” are relatively harmless tics that crowd our sentences, “actually” has an attitude.

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For a 2000 paper titledActually 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 organise 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.

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 defence 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 instanceshas seen an extreme rise since the 1980s.

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.

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 grammaticalisation.”

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.

Source: Cathleen Waters

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 grammaticalisation, 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.

The #WellActually hashtag, meanwhile, serves a different purpose: to mock or criticise Twitter users who are fond of using “Well, actually…” in picking fights.

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.”

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era