Can One Word Get You Slapped Or Hugged?

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It was so subtle, I almost missed it…

But, still, it was right there. Lingering. Making my daughter feel worse about herself, without her really getting why.

A few minutes earlier, she’d been deep into the process of creation, her friend at her side. Two 7-year old girls drawing, decorating, pouring their hearts onto paper and pastels. Pronouncing she was done, my daughter turned to her friend, looking for approval.  But, what came out of her friend’s mouth was…

“Actually, that’s really pretty.”

Compliment? Or underhanded dig? My daughter wasn’t sure how to respond. Here’s why. It’s the word “actually” that’s the problem. Without it in the sentence, it’s clearly a compliment, everyone’s happy. But, add that single word and the compliment turns just a bit evil.

The word “actually” implies a sense of surprise, an understanding that what comes next is not expected. In this sentence, it translates to…

“Wow, usually what you do it pretty ugly, but…”

Most people don’t think about language like this. The words pretty much tumble out of our mouths or onto the keyboard with the goal of just getting our messages across in some reasonably clear way.

But, fact is, language matters. It really, really matters. Every word counts.

It’s the reason speechwriters, copywriters, terminologists and authors have jobs. Because the slightest addition or deletion of a single word or turn of a phrase can profoundly alter the meaning and impact of a sentence. And, that’s true, whether it’s delivered in print or in person.

Think I’m being overdramatic?

Let’s stick with the current example, the impact of the word “actually,” add or delete it from a few grown-up sentences and see how you feel about them:

  • Those jeans actually look good on you.
  • She actually gave the job to Jones
  • I actually like you, too.
  • You actually don’t look fat.
  • That dinner was actually really good.

One word is the difference between getting slapped and getting hugged.

When I’m writing marketing copy, I’ll craft every word and phrase to create a very specific psychological effect, from cultivating anger to triggering a decision to buy. And, it’s not uncommon for the change of a single word of phrase to double response rate.

Words actually matter.

So, am I just being a linguistic prima donna?

Or, is there something to this? Ever been on the other side of a comment like the ones above? Ever unintentionally let something offensive fly? What other words work in a similar way?

Let’s discuss…

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34 responses

34 responses to “Can One Word Get You Slapped Or Hugged?”

  1. roy says:

    Agreed sir!!

    One of my friends recently called and slammed me, “Come on Roy, your writing isn’t that good.”

    I replied, “Come on dear, you need to add litle bit diplomacy on your talk.” I added, “Say, come on Roy, you need to work on your writing.”


  2. Daniel says:

    I think people are often afraid to make real compliments to people.

    I think the intention behind using the word actually is to make the compliment sound more sincere, but the effect is the complete opposite.

    Replace “actually” with “fo real yo!” in all of the above sentences for intended effect.

  3. Lance says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about language recently. Especially in my writing. Words can make a big difference in how something comes across, no matter the intent.
    And – I’ve found myself using the word “actually” a fair amount recently. Now you’ve got me thinking – what was I really saying. I may have conveyed a message that wasn’t my intent. Paradigm shift going on here…language must (must) become more thought out to it’s intent.

  4. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Roy – Yeah, it’s funny I have different rules for close colleagues, family and friends. With them, I want to hear it fairly unfiltered. But, when the table are turned, I tend to very aware of how I phrase things, because I know they are not me. 🙂

    @ Interesting point, sometimes the very word we use to try to convey and unusual amount of sincerity ends up backfiring.

    @ Lance – Totally agree, words don’t just convey the message the are a critical part of the message and the way it is received and understood.

  5. […] Go to the author’s original blog: Can One Word Get You Slapped Or Hugged? […]

  6. Yeah, good one, Jonathan. It’s incredible the amount of power that one word has, and the minute I read the phrase, I knew what was coming. It doesn’t take much to change the whole meaning of a sentence or create a miscommunication because of poorly chosen words.

    Hug your kid and tell her it’s from James.

  7. Lisa Wilder says:

    So true, Jonathan. Another prime example of the effect a single word can have…the use of the word “if” when apologizing.

    “I’m sorry IF I upset you,” is much, much different than, “I’m sorry I upset you.” The use of that one simple word removes all responsibility and sincerity from the apology.

    The use of that one word implies that the person to whom the faux apology is being given shouldn’t be upset.

    I’d as soon not receive an apology at all as receive one that includes the word “if.”

  8. Adam says:

    Another word I’m being conscious of using is “just”, as in “I just wanted to say hello,” or “Could you just do me a favour?”

    It’s a word that I’ve found can either be a basic nicety (Just stopping by to say hello, but nothing else big), but at other times it is either useless or negative like in, “I just wanted to say thanks.” Why does just need to be there?

    It’s a word that while it does have some uses, I think it can be easily overused, and potentially misconstrued.

  9. Robin says:

    This is my first visit to your blog and a c t u a l l y, this post earned you an instant add to my reader.

    Which most certainly is NOT a back-handed compliment.

  10. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ James – Nice to hear from the penmeister general! When your life revolves around words, it’s amazing how attuned you get to the impact of the slightest changes in them

    @ Lisa – huh, interesting take on “if,” makes a lot of sense and I know I’ve been on the receiving side of that one, too.

    @ Adam – yeah, “just” is an interesting one, it can play so many different roles, but so often it serves to minimize something that deserves the full credit.

    @ Robin – I am “actually” very honored you’d add me to your RSS on “just” the first visit! 😉

  11. Well, ACTUALLY, I receive these comments from my mother in law, all the time. So, yeah, that word can be a real slap in the face, to me anyway when it comes from my MIL!

  12. Pierre Far says:

    Actually, I agree 🙂

    Good marketers have known the impact of language for ages, testing copy variations, the impact of adding or removing words and more. AdWords allows you to do this kind of experimentation on a large scale, and have the data within hours or days.

    Another example is Summize, now part of Twitter. It was started to figure out what language your customers are using to talk about your product. You can still see that in action using their advanced search at .


  13. I don’t usually exclaim out loud when reading blog posts, but for this one I did. Think of Andrew Dice Clay’s signature “Ohhh!” and you get the idea.

    Here’s another little one I learned the hard way: If you mean “no” then say “no.” Do not say: “Not really.”

  14. Sara says:

    Great post. One word carries a LOT of meaning and sometimes we insert those charged words instead of openly stating how we feel or what we need.

    I once had a friend who stopped me mid-stride, asked me if I was X size or Z size jeans, and when I (sort of confusedly) said the smaller size, she seemed disbelieving. After a long, dramatic pause, she surmised, “Hmm. Yeah, actually, I guess you are a size X.” I ended the “friendship” soon after for obvious reasons. Who needs that kind of attitude? 🙂

  15. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Lisa@blessedwithgrace – Dohhh, no doubt certain family members use the old “actually” like a dagger, while smiling politely.

    @ Pierre – it is truly amazing how powerful this concept is when it comes to crafting marketing and sales copy.

    @ Michael – Hehehe, yup, you always struck me as the Dice-type! 😉 Nice call with the “no,” too. Though, that’s partially a cultural thing, certain cultures will almost never say a direct now, which in business, creates some interesting scenarios (at least it has for me)

  16. SquidDNA says:

    I think it’s possible to convey surprise and approval at the same time without it being a backhanded compliment, unless the recipient is seven and therefore probably very sensitive and not keen on subtleties in language.

    I don’t think it’s correct for people to assume that their work or their personal value is always excellent. Contrast: “Actually, that’s excellent” with “Actually, that’s adequate.” There’s a difference.

  17. Okay, you got me with this one. I try to weigh the emotional impact of every word but somehow this one slipped through the cracks. Now you’ve got me wondering how many others I might have missed.

    Thanks for the insight Jonathan, great artile!

  18. Kelly says:


    How funny. I used the word in responding to a comment on my blog thirty seconds before I clicked on this post in my email.

    I did use it to mean, “not-usually-but-now,” as you say, but now I’m wondering how correct my use is normally. I think I use is well, but I’ll be on the lookout for a while.

    (Lisa—I had a friend who used to say “I’m sorry you’re upset.” What a difference that phrasing makes! Friend probably still says it, but not a friend anymore.)



  19. Kelly says:

    …I think I use it well…

    typos, grr

  20. foolery says:

    Hi Johnathon! Clicked over from your Tweet.

    Oooo, I have a list. Here are two:

    “I love her to death.” To me this says LESS than “I love her,” and it’s almost always meant as extreme love. “To death” kind of softens the impact; it’s not easy for so many of us to make such declarations.

    “Sort of,” used before a definite word, as in “sort of very.” AARRGGHH! It’s the new “ya know.” I have heard it more than any other source from British people in interviews, but Katie Couric is a big offender. Or, she was when I used to watch her.

    Actually, I’m glad I clicked over. 🙂

    — Laurie @ Foolery

  21. GirlPie says:

    Great word, crummy usage in that instance.
    But don’t kids mimic? That child’s parent might need to hear your story; the kid might not bet much better than “actually” at home.

    Thanks for the reminder that just as we carefully manipulate our readers, so might we carelessly manipulate as speakers.

  22. Laurie says:

    I get irritated when someone is discussing something with me and they keep using the word “basically” in their description. I feel as if they are breaking it down to the simplest form so I can wrap my pea sized brain around their complex thoughts.

  23. Stephanie says:

    Words matter. Voice intonation matters. Intention matters. Effective communicators use all of the above (and more).

    When I was in the fifth grade I unintentionally insulted my art teacher by expressing “Ooooooh” at something she had created. I meant wow, she heard “Eeeeeeeew”. Even after clarifying it, she didn’t believe me. It’s odd that after all these years I still remember that exchange. I think I’m more careful as a result. Conveying the desired message is extremely important to me.

    One of my coworkers came up with an expression that sounds like a compliment but isn’t. Try it out: “You’re younger than you look.” We are on the lookout for other similar expressions.

    Thanks for the reflection Jonathan!

  24. Laurie says:

    @ Stephanie – How about “That outfit looks better than the one you had on yesterday!”

  25. Actually, there are many many more of these kinds of backhanded compliments… I always giggle when I hear them.

    * You did a really great job _this_time_. (implying previous attempts were not)
    * That shirt _makes_ you look good. (implying that you’re usually not looking good)
    * That’s a good compliment _coming_from_you_. (implying their regular compliments are much like this one…. ;p)

    The reason they make me giggle is, in my experience, the speaker doesn’t have the choice or awareness of what they are actually (;p) saying. They mean to give a good compliment, but need to keep their social status intact.

    I could write thousands of words on this topic, but thankfully I don’t have to. Go find some of Deborah Tannen’s books. She covers this and many more interesting ways of verbal communication.


  26. bejewell says:

    Every word DOES matter, especially in the nutty world of copywriting! And also if you’re a seven-year-old girl.

    Hope you gave her a big hug after that.

  27. Frisky Librarian says:

    Ah, “actually”. Yep, been on the receiving end of this one. At Christmas time I visisted my mother and I asked her opinion on my new, much shorter, hair style and was put out when she replied, “It looks quite nice actually”.

    ‘Just’ is another interesting one, as someone has mentioned already. I recently noticed that I use this in conversation when people learn I work for a law firm. “No, I’m just a secretary,” I say. Hmmm.

  28. The problem is that we’re no longer confident of our spoken words. The need to add a word that waters down a statement or makes it more middle-of-the-road is unfortunate. And now we’re passing it down to our children. Ugh!

  29. Justin says:

    I really, really enjoyed reading that post. It’s so true; language is a powerful tool, and it has been used to change the world countless times. What words you choose to use and what order you put them in is critical.

  30. Robyn says:

    A number of comments seem to lean towards words such as “basically” and “actually” serving as a new version of “like.” I think most people who use them aren’t trying to make a backhanded compliment so much as they aren’t aware of how the insertion of the word changes the meaning of what they’ve said. In my experience, a lot of young girls use “actually” in place of “really”; a word that is nowadays less about facts and more about emphasis.

    It could be that with the emphasis on sounding “cool” over the last few decades, a lot of word misuse and misunderstanding has occurred colloquially which hasn’t been addressed by English classes.

  31. bucko says:

    Just and Actually. I used to work in phone sales. When training people on the phone hearing them say
    “I’m just calling” or “I’m actually calling” was like chalk running down a black board. One person would double up with “I’m actually just calling”. I would explain that in sales that one word is giving away any power and dignity you have. The word just is used as a way to justify why you are calling. Where instead the mindset should be that you are helping the customer by calling. Something like “I called because I noticed …”, works much better than “I just called because I noticed…” Its so subtle. But it definitely matters.

  32. Stephanie says:

    I meant to check back sooner.

    @Laurie – Thanks for the line!

    @Michael Vanderdonk – I’ll have to check out some of Deborah Tannen’s books. Those lines make me giggle too. 🙂

    Here’s another one: You’re smarter than I thought.

  33. I began thinking about the power of language as it pertains to working with and raising kids around 15 years ago as a new teacher over hearing a teacher making the mistake of saying to a kid who was goofing around in line “Since you can’t behave yourself, you can go to the end of the line.”

    I often describe to parents how most of the things we say to kids have an unstated message that says “You’re capable” or “You’re not capable”. Starting to sort what we’re saying into these two piles seems to help parents to start to get the gist of making catches, like your excellent example of “actually…”

  34. I meant to include the question that came to mind for me that might jump out at some people, but can be easy to miss: Didn’t she just tell that kid that “He can’t behave himself”? Was that in either her or his interest. Probably not a huge deal in itself, but when we repeat things like that I think they take on a life of their own.