Previous research has claimed that the adverbs actually and really are interchangeable. In other words, we should be able to use one or the other with no significant change to the meaning of the utterance.
It’s actually not as simple as that
It’s really not as simple as that
Mark Gray investigated the meaning of these words in medial position (i.e. when they are not at the beginning or end of an utterance) to see how interchangeable they were. He used two sources of data for the analysis – the spoken part of the British National Corpus and a series of BBC 4 radio broadcasts of the ‘Any Questions’ programme. In order to carry out his study, he looked at what other words actually and really occur with throughout the data. By looking at these collocations, he could judge how interchangeable they were. For example, if actually and really were found to occur in the same structures (such as with the same following verbs), they could be considered as interchangeable. However, if there wasn’t much overlap in how they were used, that would indicate they had different core meanings and were not able to be substituted for each other without changing the meaning.
Looking at actually and really before adjectives, Gray found that actually tended to occur with adjectives whose meaning had an easy opposite (such as true, which has the opposite false: we say that’s actually true and that’s actually false). Actually also occurred with adjectives that imply only a two-way comparison (such as he’s actually better than Sam). In contrast, really was found to pattern mostly with gradable adjectives (such as it’s really good to see you or she’s really nice, where it’s also possible to say she’s exceptionally nice or she’s slightly nice). This seems to imply that speakers will select which adverb to use in accordance with the properties of the following adjective. Further to this, Gray observed that actually is much more restricted in what type of verb can follow it, and there are many verbs which were found to follow one but not the other. For example, saw and put were found to follow actually but not really, while hate and like were found to collocate with really but not with actually.
However, even though this evidence suggests that, at least in British English, actually and really are not interchangeable, there are some syntactic contexts where both can be found. In particular, both were found to occur after the pronoun I and before the verb think. For example, people said I actually enjoyed it and also I really enjoyed it. So, how does a speaker choose between the two?
Gray proposes that actually is used when a speaker is presenting a new opinion - that is, one which is not implied by the discourse so far. Using the example I actually enjoyed it, a previous utterance could have been:
A: I can’t believe you went scuba diving….. you’ve always hated being in the water
B: I actually enjoyed it
B’s response shows how the actually refutes the assumption that A had about B’s feelings toward scuba diving. In contrast, really is used when the speaker wants to intensify their own feelings towards what follows it. So, if we substitute really in the example above (I really enjoyed it), the speaker is instead emphasising the ‘enjoyment’ of the experience. In contrast to previous claims, then, Gray concludes that, even when really and actually are found in the same syntactic frame, they do not have the same meaning in discourse.
Gray, M. (2012) On the interchangeability of actually and really in spoken English: quantitative and qualitative evidence from corpora. English Language and Linguistics 26:151-170
This summary was written by Jenny Amos