Friday, January 23, 2009

in actual fact

Much like the previously discussed case of ‘literally,’ many buzzwords are deployed to provide force of emphasis, exaggeration or intensification. People use these blunt instruments to sound more serious about their topic of conversation.

The urge can drive them to speak redundantly, as though thinly disguised repetition could make their point stronger. One common example is the phrase ‘in actual fact.’

Spoken far more frequently than it is written (at least on this side of the Atlantic Ocean), it’s a needlessly wordy way of saying ‘actually’ or ‘in fact,’ either of which would be fine on its own. Yet, it seems to slip past many nitpickers’ radar because it somehow sounds more scholarly than slangy.

On January 23, 2009, a Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee—of all people—was quoted in The Financial Post as saying, presumably with no sense of irony, “The motion is in actual fact kind of redundant.”

The scholarly tinge the phrase carries in countries like Canada may be the fault of their colonial past. The BBC World Service, after all, recommends the phrase in its Learning English program:

 … we can … use in actual fact or as a matter of fact to clarify matters or to introduce new information.

Just because “we can,” however, doesn’t mean “we should.”


  1. I used to work with a woman who used this phrase at every opportunity--and with particular elan in meetings. She always looked like she'd just scored a point when she said it. She was also partial to "at this point in time," which is a great phrase to use when you want to say "now" but would rather use four extra words.

  2. Heck, 'point in time' and 'period of time' bug me, given they can always be simplified to just 'point' and 'period.'

  3. Have you ever read Politics and the English Language by George Orwell? It's bang-on for this topic.

  4. Damn, George Orwell got to all of this before I did?! ;)

  5. Don't feel bad. He was a government employee, so he had more free time.