What's the difference between actually and in fact?

Dear Alan:
I met a sentence which goes like this:
The experts still have a long way to go to explore new sources of energy. In fact, they have to work even harder.
I wonder if the word actually can replace in fact in the previous. If not, what’s their difference? Thanks.

Hi Daisy-- welcome to English-test.net!

Yes, both words seem to work in that sentence. The meanings are certainly the same, but in fact has a formality about it that actually lacks, and the former would probably be used more in serious writing.


According to my dictionary, actually and in fact are synonyms, but in addition actually may mean:

  • now, nowadays, at present (Actually, let’s just read this little bit where you’ve made them bump into each other);
  • something like strangely enough, strange though (it may seem) (No, I’m not a student. I’m a doctor, actually)

Hope this will help.
Good luck!

Is the adverb ‘actually’ really used to mean ‘at present’ or ‘nowadays’? I was taught that it is a false cognate for ‘actuellement/actualmente’ (Fr/Sp), which have to be translated as nowadays, at present.

Hi Conchita,

No, not really. Actually means practically nothing at all except things like:

as a matter of fact/in point of fact/to tell the truth/in a manner of speaking/you might say/to be frank/to be perfectly honest/without beating about the bush/I can’t tell a lie/to come to the point/I must admit/I can’t deny/if you must know/since you ask/making no secret of it/in all honesty/not to put too fine a point on it/calling a spade a spade/all joking aside/without pulling any punches/let’s face it and so on and so on or as my good friend, Mr Shakespeare puts it: full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


This is a famous false friend between English and the continental European languages. Technically it means “really”. And “actual” means “real”.

Whether or not the word means anything (per Alan’s comment) depends on which dialect you speak. The British seem to insert it almost as a verbalized pause, or what in the Czech language is called a “parasitic expression”. (I just love that term! I wish we had it in English!) So you’ll hear a lot of UK speakers inserting the word with little or no meaning, as Alan pointed out. In most US dialects, however, it still means “really”, and we use other parasitic expressions of our own instead.

Let’s use it then, even if it’s not perfect or accepted English (how can we know these things for sure, anyway?). Besides, it’s one of the functions of quotation marks: to justify the use of unorthodox words or expressions! I often do it when I like a word – it’s a bit like playing with the language. Anyway, isn’t it through use that words become official ?

For this kind of all-purpose, function or catch-all word, in Spanish you say ‘un comod?n/una palabra comod?n’ and in French ‘un mot passe-partout’: a wild card or joker word.