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The New Oxford American Dictionary gives two meanings for actual:

  1. existing in fact;
  2. existing now; current

How common is the second of these meanings? Is it something that can be used without fear of being misunderstood (given that the differentiation between the two meanings will often not be clear from context alone)?

My feeling is that it is better to use other words to describe current because (again, this is my feeling), actual is really predominantly used in its first meaning. I am not a native speaker, however, so my gut feeling could be wrong...

EDIT: An example where actual is used to signify current but seems confusing to me:

“The state of the system does not reflect its actual input.”

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Do you mean "actual is really predominately used in its first meaning" instead of current? I was going to edit this, but then I wasn't sure. –  KitFox Jun 13 '11 at 13:41
    
It should be fine to use it for both. Would you like to venture an example? –  z7sg Ѫ Jun 13 '11 at 13:46
    
@Kit: Thanks, I made the edit, you are right –  stff00 Jun 13 '11 at 13:49
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Your "actual input" example is a very common usage, but most people would regard it as meaning "real" rather than "current". "Most people" may of course be wrong... :-) –  user1579 Jun 13 '11 at 14:38
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The Macmillan dictionary (of British English) is clear on this: >**Get it right: actual**<br> >Don't confuse actual with current or present.<br> >Actual is not used for referring to things that are happening now or that exist now.<br> >macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/actual –  user25008 Aug 17 '12 at 13:36
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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I can tell you as a (fairly well educated) native speaker, I did not realize actual could be used to mean current until I learned to speak Spanish (in Spanish, the cognate actual means current).

So, while many out there probably will understand you, I can attest that quite a few will only recognize the first definition.

EDIT: (I come from the South East region of the US, FWIW.)

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I agree. I'm pretty well educated too, and I wouldn't use actual as an unqualified synonym for "current". In cases where the word is used to indicate something happening at the present moment, there is still an element of the "existing in fact" meaning to it; it just adds the sense of "existing in fact right now": The ship's actual position is [latitude/longitude]. That refers to the ship's current position, but it's still something like a synonym of true in that context. –  Robusto Jun 13 '11 at 14:01
    
Yep. You'll find a lot of Spanish speakers (like me) using "actual" instead of "current". That is aggravated because "real" is also an Spanish word (meaning "real", BTW). I always thought I was making a mistake, though :) –  belisarius Jun 13 '11 at 15:18
    
Just to add to what @Robusto and @snumpy have said: the meaning of current is very rare - so rare that some dictionaries don't mention it at all, and others only allude to it in examples like caught in the actual commission of a crime which, as Robusto says, is close to the commoner meaning. Places where it is used with the sense of current are usually fixed technical phrases like actual cash value. –  psmears Jun 13 '11 at 15:23
    
Thanks, this definitely cleared things up. –  stff00 Jun 13 '11 at 16:39
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In the UK I more often encounter French than Spanish people writing English, and for them too "actual" meaning "present" or "current" is a common false friend. –  Colin Fine Jun 13 '11 at 16:52
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It's common in project management (and management in general) to use actual as the opposite of "Estimate" or "planned". The planned start date was June 1st; the actual start date was June 3rd. The estimated effort for phase 2 was 27 days; the actual effort was 30 days.

I would not use it as a replacement for current (the current time is, the current temperature is, my current bank balance is) unless I had some non-actual value to contrast it to.

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