The most overused word on the internet. Stop using it.

I was at an event last week and listened to a talk by Andrea Zoellner on microcopy and user experience (KILLER talk by the way – I’m looking to get her on the podcast).

One of the questions asked was “what is your most hated or overused word” and a few answers like disruptive, impactful and hustle came up.

While riding the train home, I had a think about the most overused word on the internet and I had a different thought.

Actually. I had a realisation that the most overused, least useful and most misguided word is the word “actually”.

Actually

Actually I think you’ll find…
Actually, when you look at the data…
Actually, when my head isn’t up my ass…

The word actually is in my opinion, the most overused and most pedantic of all words. It’s the hallmark of someone who insists that you need to know something. And boy, are they going to educate you.

“The peanut is not actually a nut. It’s actually a legume”

Man correcting someone on Facebook about his favourite nut.

Any sentence that starts with the word “actually” immediately makes me think “this is going to be a self-serving condescending answer”.

It turns out I’m not even alone in this. Time magazine and Inc. talk about 1 Word That Immediately Kills Your Credibility. Arguing that it’s superfluous information that serves no purpose to the fact or statement.

How many customers do you have?
Actually, we have over customers in over 100 countries.
Ok… what was my misconception? I only asked how many you had.

The word actually is the start of a corrective statement. It implies that the fact or question, or a statement the preceded it was either wrong or the owner of the statement is misinformed.

Just think how fucking infuriating it is when you talk about a subject, ANY subject, and someone interjects with “actually, I think you’ll find…”

It’s the starting gun of the pedant. The words that follow with be technically correct (which as we know is the best kind of correct), but my overwhelming urge to vomit with sheer anger, over-shadows your potentially factually correct retort.

What’s even worse is that people who insist on using the word actually, often are themselves repeating either an incorrect or misguided statement. I remember one time in my office I was talking about an ex-girlfriend of mine who “went ballistic” at me.

I was telling the story of how I royally pissed off my ex and said to the people around the table, “and she went absolutely ballistic”.

Cue the answer to a question nobody asked, “actually she wouldn’t have gone ‘ballistic’ Mike. Ballistic was when Vikings would enter a blood rage and slaughter people.”

In stunned silence, I quickly moved the conversation on, unable to process the sheer level of dogmatism from this guy. What the fuck am I supposed to say to that?

“You’re absolutely right. Obviously she didn’t literally go into a fugue state of sheer strength based mayhem”.

But what REALLY pissed me off, is that he was wrong. He himself was confused about ballistic and berserk.

What he was referring to was the term “berserker” from the Norse.

“This expression is believed to allude to the name of Norse warriors renowned for their ferocity in battle and forwearing no armor but a bearskin shirt (or berserkar¬†). “

Dictionary.com

Ballistic is in reference to the study of projectiles like bullets and bombs. It’s a well known phrase and again, yes, obviously my ex-girlfriend after an argument didn’t either start researching bullet drop over long distances NOR did she herself become a bullet.

But this guy…he was SO sure of himself. He was so sure he was RIGHT and that his correction would demonstrate just how verbose and knowledgeable he was.

The word actually was an attempt to reposition himself as the smartest in the room. But all it did was a) make everything think they don’t want to talk to him and b) demonstrate that he was a homagong [homma-gong] (a fuckwit, usually one that can’t drive i.e. what the fuck is this homagong doing?).

It was a friend of mine that explained to me how he was really in the wrong. Which made the whole exercise fascinating to me.

What was he looking to get out of correcting me? It’s like explaining a joke. To remove the imagery of the girlfriend going mental at me, doesn’t ADD anything. It’s just a vain attempt to say “look how smart I am, how dumb you are and luckily, I’ll take you under my wing and show you the error of your way”.

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. This quote from Eleanor Roosevelt explains how, when someone is condescending (which means to talk down to someone), it’s your decision how you feel about it.

(Interestingly, the quote above is apparently a paraphrasing of something Eleanor Roosevelt said, which someone else overheard. Please don’t “actually” correct me on this. I don’t care either way).

The corrective statement after a story or fact, is as infuriating as you allow it to be. It’s less a case of “this person makes me feel dumb” and more a case of “I’m letting this persons petty, uninformed fact make me feel dumb”.

I of course wasn’t rattled at all. Clearly, I’ve gotten over this event which happened over 2 years ago

Back to the word “actually”. It’s also used as a conjunction or sentence starter.

Actually I once went to India on a work trip.
Actually when I was younger I had a great relationship with my uncle’s friend.
Actually it’s easier to use a manual than an automatic.

I of course am not impervious to this bad writing habit. I start almost all my sentences with so, like I’m warming up the words before I commit them to the blog.

I’m intrigued by how many comments, posts, replies and sentences start with with word actually. And now I’ve pointed it out, you’ll see it everywhere.

Reddit, home of the world’s smartest people, loves the word actually. I saw a post with a gif of a can being crushed, and searched the comments.

Of around 600 comments, the word actually was used 12 times. Sometimes, twice in the same sentence.

1600 people found this actually useful

Who is ATTACKING the work and engineering that goes into an aluminium can? Using the word actually implies that the video or poster says “look at this lazily designed and hastily built can. It can’t even withstand 360kg of force. Pathetic.”

Speaking of pedants.

Thank goodness that you rushed in and corrected us that there is actually a lot of engineering work that goes into a can. Phew. Can you imagine the state of the world if people willingly and BLINDLY believed that cans didn’t have the engineering standards you suggest?

It’s also used as a flimsy pretense to frame what is absolute opinion, as absolute fact.

Thanks for the input.

Would it actually have been awesome? Or…would it be more accurate to say “I think in my opinion, that I would have liked it to stop with the ridges”. Or “I like the ridges. I’d have stopped there.”

The “ribbed for her pleasure” joke was also made 13 times. Which again, tells you everything you need to know about the world’s smartest people.

So clever. What a clever joke. For 13 people to make.

Quadruple whammy here. Two actually’s, a “your Mom is so fat” joke and another ribbed for her pleasure joke. Truly tremendous.

Such a group of smart people.

First, one person stating that it’s actually impressive. Can you imagine? This particular reader has had such an explosive and colourful life that even THEY are impressed? Such high praise.

One reader manages a double-ender of pure copy gold, using the word actually in a joke about OP’s (original poster – the person who posted the gif) Mom.

Actually should bring the reader back to the subject

My colleague Geoff, when talking to him about this word, talked to me about how the word actually, should be used to bring the reader back to the subject.

When we’re writing copy, we can tell a story to the reader and get them to take action. Anyone who has read my stuff knows that I love Promise, Problem, Myth as an introduction framework.

When we introduce a myth, we talk through a common misconception, mistake or something the reader has tried before.

I’m going to help you lose weight! Most people think they need to change their diet and work out every day. Actually…

The word actually isn’t inherently bad. Like most things, it’s humans that have overused it and stripped it of meaning and context.

If I was writing a technical piece about the link between my CRM system and chatbots, I could write a long complex paragraph and then summarise with “actually”.

We use Landbot.io as a chat system to collect data from new users, before using Zapier to pass information along to both our CRM/email platform (ActiveCampaign) and our proposal system, BetterProposals. Actually, this just means new chat users have data saved that we can market to later.

Actually is so overused now, that it’s lost all meaning. It’s refers to “in actuality” or, in real life. It’s about framing the statement in context to what we’re likely to see in real life.

However it’s been hijacked by self-righteous literalist’s who insist on demonstrating juuuuuuuuuuust how much more educated they are than you.

Worse still, even if they are factually correct in their statement, they kill the flow of conversation and dialogue. It’s as if their desperation to be seen as right, or smart, overrides their compulsion to be accepted.

“Actually” is an argumentative statement. It’s designed to take control from the initial genesis of the topic and allow the user to dispute or refute what they are reading.

Take the example above of the can being crushed. Let’s say the poster wrote or said “There is so little engineering work in a can that it can’t even take 360kg of pressure.” That would be an attack on the engineering work put into the can.

Someone else could absolutely state that “actually, the average can has a massive amount of engineering work behind it.” You can refute the attack by providing another viewpoint.

However, it’s also used to take attention from someone, also bizarrely in a way to attempt to add to the conversation. Most people who tend to use the word actually, are really looking for a way to add to the conversation.

Imagine having a talk with a couple of mates about email marketing (riveting). You talk about features, favourite tools and a few ways you’ve used it. “I’m a big fan of MailChimp. I think it’s automation is really good.”

“Actually…” you hear. Reacting with the same shoulder hunching cringe as someone dragging a knife against a porcelain plate. “MailChimp’s automation isn’t as good as Mautic’s.”

OK. Brilliant. Unfortunately I can’t listen to your point because I’m too preoccupied fantasising about feeding you to a wood-chipper. Most of the time, what is really a personal opinion or preference, is presented as “fact” because it has the word “actually” in the sentence.

When people want to be a part of the conversation, sometimes they just can’t help themselves but interject with the word “actually”. It’s an attempt to become a part of the conversation, add their witty/informed/insightful spin and position themselves as someone who knows just a little bit more than you.

It’s really a reflection of them, not you. Most people feel the need to correct others and lazily brand their opinions as “constructive feedback”. If you can’t handle their correction, there’s obviously something wrong with you. They just want to help.

As I almost finished this post, I thought “maybe I’m being too hard on Reddit. They’re so smart after all.”

So I went back and checked out a post about David Letterman creating a scholarship.

Most of Reddit’s comments are a shit show already.

Of 217 comments, 12 of them had the word actually in them.

Smashed 3 A-words in here

I’m sure a user called “Catfish-Dogfart” has many insightful and meaningful thoughts.

Well thank goodness that you were here to put us right

The final example is a perfect example of disputing something which no one has mentioned.

You actually did do that? Wow? I bet whoever didn’t believe you feels stupid now

The above comment says “I actually received this scholarship”.

OK. Who was saying you didn’t? Who on this post, or ever, cared enough to say “P4_Brotagonist, I don’t think you ever even applied for this scholarship! Explain yourself!”

“Well actually, I received this scholarship.”

Thanks for reading. I actually have some work to do now.

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Mike Killen

Mike is the world's #1 sales coach for marketing funnel builders. He helps funnel builders sell marketing funnels to their customers. He is the author of From Single To Scale; How single-person, small and micro-businesses can scale their business to profit. You can find him on Twitter @mike_killen.