False Cognates: 'Actuellement' and 'Actually'

These words look like twins but mean completely different things.

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Mistakes will always be made in French, and now you can learn from them.

French and English have hundreds of cognates, which are words that look alike or are pronounced the same in both languages. There are true cognates (similar meanings), false cognates (different meanings) and semi-false cognates (some similar, some different meanings).

The French adverb actuellement looks an awful lot like the English word "actually," but looks can be deceiving. It's really the case of a false cognate, because these two words mean completely different things:

  • Actuellement means "at the present time" and should be translated as "right now" or "currently." 
  • "Actually" means "in fact" and should be translated as en fait, à vrai dire or vraiment.

Still, many people have not assimilated this lesson, and actuellement is mistakenly used to mean "actually" so often that you have to read the sentence two or three times to decide what the person actually means.

How to Remember Which Is Which

If you need a memory device, keep this in mind: Actualité refers to a current event. If you can remember this, you shouldn't have trouble remembering that actuellement and "actually" are false cognates with different meanings.

Or you can remember the etymology. The root word of "actually" is "actual," which means "real" or "true." (Depending on the context, "actual" can be translated as réelvrai, véritablepositif, or concret.) By extension then, "actually" means "in fact."

Meanwhile, the French root word for actuellement is the French adjective actuel, which means "current" or "present." So actuellement naturally refers to time as well and, by extension, means "currently" or "right now."

Examples of Correct Usage

  • Je travaille actuellement. (I am currently working.)
  • Le problème actuel (The current/present problem)
  • Actually, I don't know him. (En fait, je ne le connais pas.)
  • The actual value (La valeur réelle)
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Team, ThoughtCo. "False Cognates: 'Actuellement' and 'Actually'." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/actuellement-french-mistake-1369440. Team, ThoughtCo. (2021, December 6). False Cognates: 'Actuellement' and 'Actually'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/actuellement-french-mistake-1369440 Team, ThoughtCo. "False Cognates: 'Actuellement' and 'Actually'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/actuellement-french-mistake-1369440 (accessed June 5, 2023).