The cover of the Pet Shop Boys album “Actually”.
Show Hide image

“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.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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.”

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
Show Hide image

Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.