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August 13th, 2008

Tooken / actually

by Barbara Wallraff

Kathy MacGregor, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “I spoke with a client who twice in the conversation used the word ‘tooken’ -- as in ‘Have you ever tooken that exam before?’ I had never heard the word. When I expressed polite surprise, she said, ‘Oh, yeah, I mean “taken.”’ Is this a horrible mangling of English grammar, or is this usage perhaps a regionalism? The client lives in Florida.”

Dear Kathy: One person’s regionalism is another person’s horrible mangling -- but you’re nice not to leap to conclusions about your client’s command of English. “Tooken” was commonplace in England until 400 or 500 years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (Sample use, from 14th-century author John Wyclif : “Derknessis tooken not it.” Say what?)

To find out about the word’s history on this side of the Atlantic, I turned to the Dictionary of American Regional English. But the four volumes of it that have been published to date only get as far in the alphabet as “Sk.” So I asked the editor, Joan Hall, if the files for the fifth and final volume (scheduled for publication in 2010) include anything on “tooken.”

Yes, indeed, she has examples of “tooken” -- or “tucken” -- in use here as long ago as 1856 and as recently as 1994. They’re chiefly Southern, she told me. Some neighborhoods in the state where your client lives may be easy to mistake for Cuba, South America or suburban New York City, but of course Florida is geographically Southern. That probably explains the client’s use of “tooken.”

Ralph H. Johnson, of Windsor, Ontario, writes: “I want to comment on the gratuitous use of ‘actually’ -- even by an esteemed language user like yourself. In a recent column, you wrote: ‘This use of the word [“issue”] started as psychobabble, meant to be less judgmental than words like “problems” and “trouble.” But when the person actually is making a judgment, ...’ I submit that the use of ‘actually’ here adds nothing to the meaning.”

Dear Ralph: You’re not alone in disapproving of “actually,” and you’re right that the word doesn’t change literal meaning. It does affect emphasis, though, and that can make a big difference.

Consider “This explanation is meant to be clear. If it’s going to be clear ...” The second sentence seems to be continuing the idea of the first, no?
Now contrast that with “This explanation is meant to be clear. But if it’s actually going to be clear ...” This time the second sentence is heading in the direction of “Never mind that it’s intended to be clear. It won’t be unless ...” This effect, which I was taught to call a turnaround, is what I intended in the passage you quote.

In speech, we can use tone of voice to indicate a turnaround: “It’s meant to be clear. If it IS going to be clear ...” But in writing, capitalizing words in the middle of a sentence is likely to elicit even more disapproval than using “actually” -- as I’m sure you’ll agree. People tempted to write or say “actually” should ask themselves whether they’re giving it any work to do. If the answer is yes, I think they should go ahead and use it.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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