The Ailment of Actually

THE NEXT TIME you actually have a conversation with someone—anyone—actually count how many times they use the word actually. Or if you’re watching a show, listening to a sound bite, even talking on the phone, actually count the number of times you actually hear “actually.”

You’ll actually be surprised.

That word—actually—has become this incredibly overused, lazy crutch of a modifier for almost everyone; from second graders to grandparents, TV news reporters to teachers, corporate CEOs to sales clerks, coaches, college students, parents, engineers, car washers, bank tellers, and—gasp!—even the president. It’s like having actually diarrhea. Which, believe it or not, is actually true.

Okay, word check time. Here’s the definition of the word, courtesy of Merriam-Webster:


Simple enough, and nothing about the main definition of the word lends itself to excessive use. So I checked out the Urban Dictionary, and one of the main definitions says that actually is the “most overused adverb I’ve ever heard. Used by those whose vocabularies lack adverbs.”

For me, nothing about the actually ailment is about a lack of adverbs—I kind of stumbled onto its overuse epidemic by accident. Sadly, this is actually about a family problem. My oldest son became afflicted with the awful ailment, falling far down the actually hole before my wife or I noticed. And we weren’t sure we’d be able to save him. He was speaking confidently, and completely, but he was also talking “actually.”

“Dad! He actually scored a touchdown!

“I actually did my homework last night.

“Well, actually, Pete was actually going to be gone tomorrow, but he’s actually home.”

I think you get it.

When I actually noticed his extreme overuse of the word, I thought breaking the habit would be difficult. I explained to him, many times, how he wasn’t using the word properly, and that it was not needed to communicate his thoughts.

“Pretend it’s a bad word,” I told him, “a word you’re not allowed to say.” He nodded, fought me a little, but then agreed to try and stop. My son agreeing with me is a rare thing of beauty that I always appreciate, and we started to pretend it was a bad word. And then we pretended some more.

“Hey,” I was saying to him several times a day, “you actually just said it.”

“You just said it, too, Dad,” and he would actually laugh hysterically.

After about a week, he surprised me and started to catch himself saying it. Within three weeks, he had almost completely dropped the word from his usual sentence-speaking habits.

Hooray! I was very happy—the kid had self-actualized himself.

But. And there’s always a but, isn’t there? As I was congratulating my oldest son for beating the actually ailment, I quickly discovered just how contagious and toxic “actually” can be—my youngest son was now saying stuff like “Actually, I’m pretty good at that game” and “I actually don’t need to look at my spelling words.” The wife also started throwing the word into her sentences as casually as she did when using “a” or “the”.

And sadly, I am actually using it a lot now, too.

* * * * *

Remember School House Rock? “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here”? Take a look again at this little gem of education brilliance—not one mention of “actually.”

This is where I could jump up on a soapy box and talk for hours (minutes?) about how stupid overusing actually—or any word—sounds, let alone how bad overusing a word looks in print (see some of the above paragraphs). I’m not a grammar snob, and I won’t pretend to be one now. I’m not worried about adverbs and never will be. Instead, I’m going to start working on a self cure for this verbal affliction—everyone else is actually on their own.

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