1 In its most basic meaning, the adverb actually is used to refer to something that's FACTUAL compared to something that's basically NON-EXISTENT. Sounds confusing, I know. Let me try to explain:

Say you know four languages: English, Spanish, Russian and German. However, you only read and write Russian — you don't speak it. Your boss knows you know several languages and asks you to record a phone message in all four languages for clients who don't understand English. You tell him:

I'll be happy to record it in English, Spanish and German because those are the languages I actually speak. 

So what actually means here is: «These are the languages that I do speak, unlike Russian, which I don't speak at all». See the contrast? Also notice that when you use actually to make a contrast, you don't have to say the second part. It's implied. In other words, by using actually like this, you don't have to say ...unlike Russian, which I don't speak at all.

We see this same contrast in the snippet below, where actually means something like «Now, I'm doing something that I IN ACTUAL FACT love». It's not about how much he loves writing, it's about the fact that there's an actual love there, which he couldn't say about waiting tables, for which he had zero love or maybe just kind of liked it, but can't say he "loved" it. So the contrast is between actually loving one thing versus not loving something else at all.

Here, the contrast is between what he in fact loves as opposed to something he didn't love at all.

I used to work long hours as a waiter. And although I made a lot of money, it was killing me. Now I'm doing something I actually love, which is writing.

Note that in this usage of actually, we normally stress the word that follows in order to show a contrast. Here, red is stressed because it contrasts with salmon.

I didn't like the first shirt you showed me because it wasn't quite red — it was more of a salmon color. I like this one more because it's actually red.

Also, because the stress makes it clear that there's a contrast, the second part can be left out and implied:

Of all the employees, why did Mr. Riley choose me to write this email

— Because it's important, and you actually know how to write! [...the others don't!]

Rita is giving her friend, Dave, a tour of her new place.


Dave: Your place is fire. Now that you’re closer, we can hang out all the time. Hey, let me take you to lunch — I’ll show you around downtown.

Rita: I'd love that! Oh, and I need to buy Connie a gift and a card. She’s been such an excellent friend. She even helped me move in.

Dave: Ouch! And what am I, chopped liver? I told you I’d help you if you wanted me to.

Rita: Yeah, but she actually showed up...

_______________⦿ Ouch! | Usually, an expression of pain, used here figuratively to react to a comment that hits you on a personal level.⦿ What am I, chopped liver? | An idiomatic expression used when someone makes you feel unimportant or not included. Basically, it means "And what am I, nothing?"
Here, it's easy to see the contrast: she showed up on moving day, but you didn't. Notice again that by using the combination of word stress and actually, the second part of the contrast can simply be implied. Rita is saying that Dave offered to help, but Connie actually came and helped her. The word actually is used to emphasize that Connie's action was real and happened, while Dave's offer was just words without action.

2a Sometimes people say things that are just not accurate, and we feel the need to correct them. Since actually is all about what's FACTUAL, we commonly use it to correct mistaken notions. 

Depending on the intonation, this can sound like a harsh «No, you're wrong!» or, as in the following snippet, like a mild «Let me update you...».

Note that in corrections, actually can be used at the beginning or end of a statement, or right in front of the main verb, where it can have slightly different nuances. 

Here, Nina could also have said: Jimmy and I broke up years ago, actually. It has exactly the same force at the end of the statement as it does at the beginning. The same with He owns it now, actuallyIn the first instance, Nina's correcting Barbara's assumption that she and her old flame, Jimmy, are married, but in the second one, she's using actually to tell her something she had no way of knowing (See 3).

Barbara: So I noticed you're wearing a wedding ring... how's Jimmy these days?

Nina: Actually, Jimmy and I broke up years ago. I married Ethan. 

Barbara: Ethan who worked at the camera store?!

Nina: Yep. Actually, he owns it now.

2b Actually is often used with a past verb form to tell what really happened despite someone's inaccurate version, misconception or outright lie. 

In this usage, it has a nuance of «Here's what really happened» and is used right before the main verb.

In this example from Blog 001: Nacho & Flor, Samantha told me her dog-walker bailed on her last minute, but I knew what really happened!

So that night, I get a text from Samantha: "Hey, my dog-walker just bailed on me last minute. You think you can help me out?" Well, I was livid. It was so obvious that she had actually fired the dog-walker because she figured I was willing to do everything for free.

3a When it's not correcting a mistaken notion, actually can have a meaning of «this may come as a surprise to you» or «believe it or not» or «you have no way of knowing this, but...»

In this usage, it's most commonly used in front of the main verb of the sentence. 

In this example from 003, I use actually to tell you something you have no way of knowing, something I did "behind the scenes" before writing the blog.

I recently came across this article online about a woman in New Zealand who has a little girl named Mahinarangi (and I know I’m pronouncing it correctly because I actually googled the pronunciation).

Here Danny tells Brad something he didn't know and had no way of knowing, but turns out to be an interesting coincidence.

It's Danny's first day at work, and his manager shows him around.


Brad: So the break room is over there, the restroom is behind it, and there's a balcony out back if you're a smoker. Now I need to get to a meeting, so if you have any questions, ask that guy over there. His name is Bo...

Danny: ...Bobby Sullivan.

Brad: Oh, you know him?

Danny: We were actually classmates in high school.

3b In front of the main verb, actually can also have a nuance of «funny enough» where you want to casually inject a comment unrelated to the discussion, but that involves a person or thing that was just mentioned. 

For instance, in the snippet below, seeing Manny's book has nothing to do with going to dinner, but Don just threw it into the conversation as a trivial coincidence, something that just occurred to him when Manny was mentioned.

In this context, actually is used to point out a coincidence that has nothing to do with the discussion at hand; just a nice side note upon hearing someone mentioned. 

Don calls his friend Bill to tell him he's coming to town next week and would like to get together for dinner. Bill suggests including a mutual friend.


Bill: I'll call Manny and see if he wants to join us for dinner while you're in town next week.

Don: That's a great idea. I actually saw his book for sale at an airport last month. I can't believe I know a published author!

3c Actually is used in front of the main verb to express (a) disbelief, shock, disapproval at something that someone HAD THE AUDACITY to do, in reference to something reprehensible, or (b) HAD THE GUMPTION to do in reference to something brave or admirable. 

Here, it has a nuance of «You're not going to believe this!» with the corresponding intonation to express wonder and admiration. Many times, speakers will slow down their speech and not use contractions in order to make this sound even more impactful.


When Angie sets her mind to something, there's no stopping her. She wanted to work for a Japanese import company, but was told she needed to know basic Japanese. She actually taught herself the language in six months!


Angie is the most underhanded person I've ever met. She needed to learn Japanese in order to land a job at an import company, and she figured the best way to do that was to have a Japanese boyfriend. So she actually befriended her coworker Komiko, became her best friend and then stole her boyfriend! 

3d When actually is used in front of the main verb in a statement that expresses a personal opinion, judgement or preference, it can be interpreted as TO BE HONEST

This is something the listener doesn't know about you, so again, you're kind of telling them something they have no way of knowing.

Nina and Barbara decide to order something to eat with their coffee.


Barbara: Wow, is that the time? I can't believe we've been sitting here for almost three hours. I hope I'm not keeping you from something...

Nina: Not at all! Apparently, we had a lot to catch up on. But I think I'm going to have to put something in my stomach — I had a very early breakfast. Shall we go get some pastries?

Barbara: Yeah, I could use something too. 

Nina: Oooh, their almond croissants are the bomb. Can I tempt you?

Barbara: I actually can't stand almond paste, but knock yourself out — this is on me. 

_______________⦿ Is that the time? | I can't believe how late it's gotten/how much time has passed⦿ a lot to catch up on | a lot of things to TELL EACH OTHER ABOUT WHAT'S BEEN HAPPENING IN OUR LIVES SINCE WE LAST SAW EACH OTHER⦿ to put something in one's stomach | to eat something after a while of not eating, or before drinking alcohol or taking medication, for example⦿ Can I tempt you? | Normally, this is a lighthearted way of asking if someone would like an alcoholic beverage. Here, Nina's using it in reference to a pastry, which is kind of cute.⦿ knock yourself out | Here: you go ahead and have one — I'm going to pass⦿ This is on me. | I'm paying for this; I'm treating you.

4 Actually is used at the beginning of a statement, usually with a pause, when we propose something, think better of it, then correct ourselves or propose something different. 

In this context, it's pronounced with a hanging intonation and often drawn out.

In this snippet, the first use of actually means you may not know this, but I speak French. But the second one is Barbara thinking of a better idea... instead of just showing you the website, I'll show you where the school is going to be. Other phrases that can be used with this meaning are on second thought, now that I think of it, in fact and as a matter of fact.

Nina and Barbara are catching up when Nina mentions that she speaks French. Barbara's in the process of starting a French school.


Barbara: What? You speak French?! 

Nina: Not only do I speak French, I was actually a French teacher at the local high school for a year. 

Barbara: Get out of here! I'm starting a French school! Well, we still don't have a building, but the public library lets us read French stories to kids on Saturday mornings. I'll send you our website and you can tell me what you think. Actually... I have to go look at a possible location this afternoon. If you're not busy, you could come with me and check it out. I'd love to get your opinion.

Nina: Absolutely. Count me in!