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Sometimes I wonder if he is actually/really as lavish as he pretends to be.

I know that this sentence can work without either actually or really, but if we were to use one of them to make an impact on the listener, which one should it be?

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2 Answers

It depends how you would like to impact the listener.

"Actually" denotes that something else has been said earlier, and "actually" is used to clarify what that something else is. E.g.:

I used to work at a school as a teacher. Actually, I was a teacher's assistant.

"Really" can also be used in that case. "Really" can also be used in one other way that "actually" can't, and that is for reassurance. E.g.:

I was standing there doing nothing. I was really lost.

If you want to impact our listener as to how true and how real the situation was, "really" would be used, as in the above example.

However, if you were clarifying a statement, "really" and "actually" are quite interchangeable.

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Quite. There are a number of people that live in the southern English town of Brighton-Hove-Actually. It is never referred to as Brighton-Hove-Really. –  Brian Hooper Feb 29 '12 at 8:46
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In their primary definitions, Merriam-Webster lists really and actually as synonymous:

really, adv. : in reality : actually

actually, adv. : in act or in fact : really

In the secondary definitions, subtle differences emerge:

really :

1 b : truly, unquestionably —used as an intensifier

c : very 2

2 —used to emphasize an assertion

actually :

2 : in point of fact —used to suggest something unexpected

In your example sentence, there is nothing to choose between really and actually; you're wondering whether perception jibes with reality.

In the following sentences, however, really and actually could not be used interchangeably:

It's a really beautiful day.

She won't actually arrive for another hour.

The links to the definitions provide other usage examples.

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Not interchangeable, you say? Sounds like a challenge! Says I, She won't actually arrive for another hour. could be used in the context of an extremely long ship travelling at an excruciatingly slow pace, whose bow has only just crossed in front of the pier. "She's technically arrived, all right," says the harbormaster, "but she won't really/actually arrive for another hour." Although I concede the situation is perhaps not indicative of the most likely reality :) –  David John Welsh Jun 17 '13 at 9:12
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