Rantings of a sub-editor

July 14, 2010

It’s a fact: “actually” has its charms

Filed under: actually and in fact,word choice — substuff @ 11:52 am
Tags: , , ,

A few days ago, I received back a proof that had a little tutorial at the bottom. It said:

“Never use ‘in fact’ or ‘the fact is’ – they are redundant. Either something is a fact or it isn’t.”

Goodness, every day is a school day.

The original sentence said:

“Pay-as-you-go mobile phones are extremely popular. In fact, more than 50% of our readers have one.”

And my anonymous tutor had changed this to:

“Pay-as-you-go mobile phones are extremely popular and more than 50% of our readers have one.”

Bearing in mind that this is a chatty, informal and consumer-facing magazine and that the 50% figure is surprisingly high, I think the original sentence has more impact and has actually been made duller by the change.

However, he’s not alone. The Times style guide says:

fact that almost always an unnecessary circumlocution, so avoid (eg, “owing to the fact that” means because). See verbosity

 in fact can, in fact, almost invariably be omitted

The Guardian style guide doesn’t have any entries that I can find.

The episode got me thinking. “The sentence has actually been made duller”? Surely any ban on “in fact” or “the fact is” should also include “actually”, because similarly, it doesn’t have much of a meaning. But on that day I had used just that word in a feature about sales skullduggery.

My sentence was:

“In each case the sale price was contrasted with a ‘usual’ price that was never actually available.”

And although “actually” adds little in terms of meaning or content, I feel quite strongly that without it the sentence would be weaker.

To me it is a question of tone of voice. This magazine has quite a pally style. We abbreviate it’s, there’s, you’ve, for example. And in the case of these two features, there wasn’t much pressure on word count. In other words, surprise surprise, I think I was right to use “in fact” and “actually” in these cases. However, I doubt I would use either in a hard-hitting and tight news story for a newspaper.

So what does “actually” actually mean? My feeling is that it marks the surprising part of the sentence – the juicy or meaty bit, or the scandal. It’s also useful to signal a contradiction of the reader’s expectation – “Those who religiously eat turnips every day may be surprised to hear that they are actually bad for the nerves”. I put the question to a friend, as I am wont to do, and after some consideration he proclaimed it was the bit of the sentence that you accompany with a jabbing finger. “I can’t believe you actually [jab] did that!”

In my opinion, these words and phrases are far from redundant and imposing a “never use” rule is just miserable. It’s a matter of knowing when to use them – and when not to. As a matter of fact, I’m actually rather reticent to give them up.

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11 Comments »

  1. There’s a good reason why the Guardian doesn’t advise people not to use actually or in fact. Used properly, they can add something to a piece, such as emphasis or a more informal tone. By taking it out in the example you give, they have killed the sentence. It’s an example of the difference between subbing in the Times and the Guardian – when subs have come here from the Times, I have sometimes had to knock out of them the tendency to make everything read as if it had been written by the same (rather dull) writer.

    Comment by David Marsh — July 14, 2010 @ 12:25 pm | Reply

    • Indeed, they KILLED my sentence! In defence of The Times, though, their style guide does say “almost invariably” and “almost always unnecessary”. Our style guide at Which? doesn’t rule it out, either. Only the person who wrote it on my proof said it should never be used. His time will come…

      Comment by substuff — July 14, 2010 @ 8:41 pm | Reply

  2. “In each case the sale price was contrasted with a ‘usual’ price that was never actually available.”

    I think the ‘actually’ does add something in terms of meaning here. Without it, you lose the sense that the price *should* have been available.

    Mind you, I may have a vested interest in fighting Actually’s corner as I live in Hove…

    Comment by David Atkinson — July 14, 2010 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

    • Is Love Actually (unpunctuated, it would seem) an intentional pun on “Hove, actually”?

      Comment by Rich — July 14, 2010 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

      • Love Actually is unpunctuated because it’s an instruction to love the word actually.

        Comment by Tom Freeman — July 14, 2010 @ 6:46 pm | Reply

    • I think I could have saved myself a lot of writing by just using Hove, actually as an example!

      Comment by substuff — July 14, 2010 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

  3. I agree that “pay-as-you-go” sentence was made worse by the edit.

    The problem is that “and” usually introduces related but independent information, but here is followed by an exemplification, undermining the relation between the two statements.

    The crescendo is lost and the sentence falls flat.

    On the other hand, in shorter sentences, this elision can be used for rhetorical effect:

    “Editors are fallible and your editor got it wrong.”

    Comment by Rich — July 14, 2010 @ 1:23 pm | Reply

    • Yes, you’re quite right. Even a dash instead of the ‘and’ would have been better.

      Comment by substuff — July 14, 2010 @ 8:47 pm | Reply

  4. Actually quite readable. In fact, I might even come back for the next one.

    There’s also a distinction to be made between “propositional” (meaningful) uses of actually (as a sign of contradiction or surprise, or as an intensifier), and “discourse marker” uses (as a marker of a change of topic or opinion), although the latter are mostly found in speech, and I think it’s these that people object to.

    The fact that there are formal equivalents for the former (indeed, in point of fact, genuinely, it transpires, you will find) suggests it has a useful role.

    Comment by Andy B — June 11, 2012 @ 10:33 am | Reply


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