Thursday, May 24, 2007

How did "actually" become the most-used word in the United States?

Who's asking: Larry Willis, St. Louis, MO

Verbal tics come and go. I notice that people don't say "You know" as much as they used to, or maybe I've culled those people from my circle of acquaintances. Someone I worked for used to end every sentence with, "You know what I mean?" I assumed it was just a bad conversational habit until I realized that he did, in fact, expect me to acknowledge the wisdom of each of his observations.

I haven't noticed an increase in the use of "actually," but I tend to filter those words out when I'm listening to someone. I'll take Larry's word for it, and it doesn't surprise me if it's true.

One of the reasons I pound my clients so hard about adverbs is that the presence of an adverb makes the reader stop and wonder why it's necessary. A reader sees the tag, "she said coyly," and wonders: why is she coy? What's she got to be coy about? The reader's thoughts wander down that path and away from the conversation on the page, and the writer has lost him. Leave "coyly" out and the reader keeps reading, thinking, "Oh, boy, she wants something."

The very presence of an adverb suggests a need to reassure the reader about something, and creates doubt and distraction where none existed.

Likewise, words such as "actually," "really," "honestly," and "frankly" suggest that you might otherwise lie to the person you're talking to -- and imply that you might be lying now, so need that intensifier to convince your listener of your sincerity.

I actually think (no, really) that people are using the word "actually" more these days because we all feel so uncertain and anxious. We can't believe the people running the government; our sports heroes are mercenary bullies and drug abusers; our movie stars are narcissistic neurotics; and God, as always, works in mysterious ways. When we say "actually," we are saying, "I want to believe this -- if you believe it too, that will help."

But you're right, Larry, it's still annoying.


Linda Brown said...

You are so right about the reader wandering down a different path. I tried a couple times to read Lipstick and Lies by Margit Liesche, in part because she's a friend of Patty Smiley, and in part because the storyline is intriguing.

Alas, she dwells on wardrobe, which is distracting enough (I get the time period, I can color it in myself). But when she had her protagonist "chirp" a response to someone's question, I decided that was all I could take.

How can I not be distracted by "chirp"?!


steve said...

I believe my (almost) 5 year old daughter is single handedly responsible for putting "actually" over the top as the most used word.


Anonymous said...

Maybe ACTUALLY is a midwest thing. It hit me the other night when a local newscaster said, "The abandonded childern were actualy taken to the police station. The staff was so touched by them that after work they went to McDonald's actually and brought back Happy Meals. They then actually baby sat the kids for a period of time."

Larry Willis
St. Louis :-)

steve said...

O.K., I'm late to the party, but I think the reason many people say "actually" so often is because it's fun to say. It starts way back in the throat, nudges the soft palate, hits the hard palate and then bounces on the back of the teeth. Linguistically speaking, it's an absolute dream!