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We had an exam today and here is the question on which I was confused.

Fill in the gaps.

Justin is a very hardworking student. His ideas and words are ___and useful.

There were 2 options: wise and actual.

As you might guess, about 50% of us chose wise and others chose actual. We want to know that which one of these can not be used in this sentence?

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I thought it would be "as you might guess , 100% of us chose wise". By actual you mean realistic... –  Argot Jan 23 at 19:13

3 Answers 3

Using "actual" here doesn't make sense. In this context "actual" and "true" mean two different things: words could be his "actual words," but the words themselves could be untrue. (For example, his actual words were "it's night" at noon.) So, "actual" here is redundant: "actual" is a synonym for "real," but you're already discussing his real words.

"Wise" works because it parallels "useful" without being the same thing.

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Grammatically, both can be used in the sentence, however the context seems to indicate the question was looking for the word wise.

Actual means literal or existing in fact. While words and ideas can be literal or existing in fact, the word actual usually appears to emphasize the literal nature of the concept being described. For example, actual income would emphasize that the income is existing in fact, compared with, say expected income. This type of emphasis is not indicated by the sentence, and thus the word doesn't really fit.

Native speakers, in my opinion, would not use actual in this context if they were trying to say Justin was a very literal fellow, but something like realistic, concrete, or constructive.

The word wise means informed, educated, or showing good judgement. Words and ideas can be wise and this works well.

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I forget what the name for this class of adjectives is, but there are some adjectives that can be used both attributively ("the red ball") and the other way—non-attributively?—("the ball is red"). "Actual" is from that class of adjectives that can only be used attributively. That is "the actual words he said" is grammatical, but *"the words he said are actual" is not grammatical.

For this reason, the answer could never be "His words and ideas are actual" because it's not grammatical.

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1  
Predicatively? P.S. "Actual" can be used predicatively, but in a different, philosophical sense. I agree that this is far less likely to be the intended answer, though. –  Cerberus Jan 23 at 23:27
1  
There are some jargonish uses of "actual" as well. For example, the feature of the C# programming language that came to be called "partial methods" was originally called "latent and actual methods". The idea being that a method could be "latent" -- like a glove with the right shape, but no hand in it, so you can't use it for any real work -- or it could be "actual" -- there's a hand in that glove and it can throw things. In that case "this method is latent, that method is actual" would make sense to those who knew the jargon, but it would be confusing otherwise. –  Eric Lippert Jan 23 at 23:39

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