I’m a word nerd, so I always find it interesting when a simple change to grammar alters the meaning of a word or sentence.  Time magazine recently pointed out one grammatical faux pas:  using “actually” can be a red flag. From this article (reprinted from Inc.):

Extra words used in a sales presentation or investor pitch are unnecessary. They subconsciously point listeners to question if there’s more unspoken information. The word “actually” serves as a spoken pause, giving the presenter’s brain time to catch up and decide how to resolve the conflict in their mind between the question asked and reality.

Actually can point to something in contrast to what is expected; for example, (per the article) if you ask someone “Did you get milk at the store?” and they respond, “Actually, I went to the gas station,” they are pointing out that you expected them to get milk at the store, but ha-ha, there is justification to get milk at the gas station, which is what they did, thwarting your heteronormative patriarchal expectations.  Or something like that.

If you ask your son, “Did you finish all your homework?” and he starts with “Actually . . . ” well, as parents, we are immediately suspicious. [1]  He may be deciding how to answer while he’s stringing out the “actually.”

The tricky part is when the word “actually” is extraneous.  It points to unspoken information.  Consider these examples of “actually” that I found on lds.org:

Belief that human beings are actually God’s children also changes Latter-day Saints’ behavior and attitudes. For example, even in societies where casual and premarital sex are considered acceptable, Latter-day Saints retain a deep reverence for the God-given procreative and bonding powers of human sexual intimacy and remain committed to a higher standard in the use of those sacred powers.

The use of the word “actually” points to unspoken information about those who don’t see human beings as God’s children, and as we see in the following sentence, those people are cast in a poor light, considering casual and premarital sex acceptable (tut, tut).  Inferior.  Immoral.  If only they actually . . .

In this statement from the First Vision retelling in Joseph Smith–History we hear “actually” again:

So it was with me. I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true

Angels above us are silently correcting your grammar.

He is contrasting his experience with the persecution he had received for his claim; the choice to use the word actually sounds somewhat defensive in this case, pleading for understanding.  Every time I read that statement I always picture a cartoon of Joseph (maybe Bazooka Joe style) with cartoon droplets flying off him in all directions in his exasperation.  Sufferin’ succotash!

In a talk by Neil A Maxwell, we hear another use:

In spite of its outward, worldly swagger, such indulgent individualism is actually provincial, like goldfish in a bowl congratulating themselves on their self-sufficiency . . .

He is illustrating the contrast between what individualism appears to be (worldly) when it is in fact something else (provincial).  It’s a device to deride the thing that isn’t what it appears to be by revealing what it actually is.

These types of comparisons parallel sarcasm, albeit more civilly, particularly if the thing held in derision is a straw man exaggeration of an opposing viewpoint.  Sarcasm does the same thing by changing the expression on our face, rolling our eyes or using an exaggerated tone.  When I was living in Asia, sarcasm simply didn’t work. Asian languages use tone to change the meaning of a word entirely.  Depending on the tone used in the word ma, you might mean “mother” or “horse.” Not that those words are that far off in meaning.  But using a different tone was lost on Singaporeans.  If I said sarcastically, “Oh, that’s a great idea,” I would later hear people saying, “Angela thinks that’s a great idea.”  Sometimes they wondered why I always seemed to like such stupid ideas.  Sarcasm fail.

The General Conference equivalent of sarcasm seems to be inserting the words “so-called” before a phrase or word.  If you used the phrase “so-called” in Asia, they would think you were simply pointing out what a thing is called, not indicating your derision for the thing you are talking about. From lds.org, the following things were labelled “so-called” in 2014:

  • a so-called deal with God to lose weight (July Ensign)
  • so-called scholars (December Liahona)
  • so-called traditional churches (December Ensign)
  • so-called small things like watching R-rated movies (February Ensign)
  • so-called difficulties about prayer (January Liahona)
  • so-called Christian leaders (October, quoted from 1978 General Conference)

I get the feeling that the Ensign thinks God doesn’t cut weight loss deals that circumvent a diet of Krispy Kreme, that people who claim to be scholars are full of baloney, that traditional churches aren’t so high and mighty, that watching R-rated movies is a slippery slope to Hell, that people who claim they don’t get answers to prayer lack character, and that leaders of other churches don’t actually follow Jesus.  Did I make all that up?  Maybe.  But that’s the beauty of sarcasm.  Plausible deniability.

Going back a little further, we find many more examples of so-called, lots of which appear to be more acerbic than the recent examples:

  • so-called needs of women (E. Packer, 1998)
  • so-called “White Horse Prophecy” (Newsroom, 2010)
  • so-called science (Pres. Monson, 2001)
  • so-called gays and lesbians (E. Oaks, 1995)
  • so-called Christians (E. Burton, 1971)
  • so-called “yellow dog” prophecy (Ensign 1979) [2]
  • so-called “revelators” (Church History In The Fulness Of Times Student Manual, 2003)
  • so-called conquest (Pres. Hinckley, 1983) referring to sexual conquests
  • so-called same-sex marriage (Eternal Marriage Student Manual, 2003)
  • so-called saviours (Durham, 1984)
  • so-called Mormon code of health (Hinckley, 1977)
  • so-called “bad breaks” (Maxwell, 1996)
  • so-called home teacher (Benson, 1987)
  • metallic beat of so-called music (Hinckley, 2000)
  • so-called experts of political science (Benson, 1981)
  • so-called maka-fekes (Monson, 2006) [3]
  • so-called problems (Groberg, 1980)
  • so-called “responsible” parents (Brown 1973) [4]
  • so-called intellectual (Hinckley, 2002)
  • so-called good life (Dew, 1999)
  • so-called friends (Jeppsen, 1990)
  • so-called refuse of humanity (Monson, 2010)
  • so-called “practices” in the church (mormon.org)
  • young people are inventing so-called churches of their own (Packer, 1973)
  • the world’s so-called fun and pleasures (random member, 1980)
  • so-called higher critics (Lee, Teachings Manual, 2000)
  • so-called support system (Simpson, 1976)

This codified speech has caught on so well that ex-Mormons often refer to the church as TSCC (the so-called church).  I guess turnabout is fair play.

Scare quotes serve a similar function. When spoken, the person makes air quotes with his or her fingers around the word that’s in question.  In writing, this is done just by adding quotation marks around a word that isn’t actually a quotation.

See what happens if you add scare quotes, so-called, and actually to regular talks to see how it changes the meaning.  Here’s a case in point, using the Proclamation:

WE, THE so-called FIRST PRESIDENCY and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “solemnly” proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is actually “ordained” of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His so-called children.

See how it works?  I’m just throwing it in randomly, but immediately, it calls into question the meaning of the following terms:  First Presidency, solemnly (you can practically hear a snicker), ordained and children.

ALL “HUMAN” BEINGS—male and female—are actually created in the image of God. Each is a beloved “spirit” son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each actually has a divine nature and destiny. So-called gender is an “essential” characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and “purpose.”

Hopefully, you get the point, but really you could go on all day; it’s easy to change the meaning of something with a little sarcasm.  We use air quotes and the phrase “so-called” to illustrate derision for what follows while the word “actually” makes a statement less credible.

Given the tone conveyed, should we be using air quotes and “so-called” in our church meetings or is it too uncivil?  When is it appropriate?  Do you ever use these?  Were any of the General Conference quotes above surprising to you?

Bonus points (or drinking game for those who imbibe) next weekend for spotting the uses of “actually,” “so-called” and double points if anyone uses air quotes!


[1] YSMV.  (Your son may vary)

[2] Why do all our prophecies sound like saloons in the Old West?

[3] so-called whats??

[4] double points for a so-called coupled with scare quotes!