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Three words to watch out for:
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Three words to watch out for:
, eventual and important

by Diane Nicholls

Next in the series of articles on Language Interference

• Three very tricky false friends
The trouble with actual and actually
The trouble with eventual and eventually
The trouble with important
Further reading
Next in the series

Three very tricky false friends

The adjectives actual and eventual and their corresponding adverbs, actually and eventually, have been chosen for close scrutiny because they are prime representatives of a particularly tricky kind of false friend. Both have cognates in many other European languages. I have found actual and/or actually listed as false friends for 14 languages, and eventual and/or eventually for 9. They are significant as false friends because it is in English alone that their sense and usage has diverged from the general consensus across Europe, where they are almost identical. They are 'true friends', so to speak, between German and French, for example, but false friends between German and English and French and English.

Important presents a somewhat different type of language interference problem. This adjective is different to actual and eventual because it has fewer cognates in other European languages since they are restricted, in the main, to romance languages, and because, although its meaning is, broadly speaking, the same in all related languages, its usage and the scope of its application differs between languages. Important is a more-or-less 'true friend' in terms of meaning in languages in which it has cognates, but a false friend in terms of the things it can be used to describe. Because of this broader range of nouns to which it can be applied (its collocates), it is sometimes but not always appropriate to translate the Spanish word importante, for example, as important in English.

We are looking, then, at representatives of two different types of false friend in this issue. What they have in common, is the subtlety of the problems they can cause for learners of any of the languages involved. Each of these words can appear quite naturally in a sentence without arousing suspicion that an error is lurking, while the intended meaning is lost or misunderstood. If a non-native speaker says 'I will wear my smoking tonight', we will instantly know that something has gone wrong and will ask for clarification and eventually correct the mistake, but if somebody says 'I look forward to our eventual meeting', we will think we have understood. But have we?


The trouble with actual and actually

The Macmillan English Dictionary defines these two words as follows:

These two words perform an emphatic function in English. Rather than bearing any real identifiable meaning, they are slotted into sentences for emphasis, contradiction and confession. They were originally borrowed into English from Old French in the 15th century, when they had a meaning related to performing actions, but developed their current English meanings in the 16th century while their European cognates, which had the same point of departure, went in a very different direction. Below are a few examples of actual's cognates across Europe:

language cognate meaning
Czech aktuální topical; modern, up-to-date, trendy; relevant
German aktuell relevant; topical; current; fashionable
French actuel present, current; topical
Russian aktualny topical; pressing (question)
Italian attuale present, existing, current; topical
Spanish actual present; current, topical; modern, fashionable
Danish aktuel topical, of current interest, current
Dutch actueel current; topical; up-to-date
Hungarian aktuális topical, of current interest; current; present
Polish aktualne up-to-date, present; current

It is easy to imagine the sort of sentence an English learner might construct based on a mistaken belief that the English cognate is a reliable friend. And easy too to imagine the inferences a native speaker might draw to make sense of them. If a French learner of English says 'I have never met his actual wife' one might understand that there is another woman who masquerades as his wife when, in fact, they are saying that they haven't met his current wife. If an Italian learner of English says 'My actual job is boring' it will be assumed that they have another part-time or perhaps voluntary job that they enjoy more or that although the work they do is boring there is some other aspect of the workplace that makes it interesting. And what do they mean when they say 'I like my actual flat'? At least if they say 'This topic is very actual in Russia' the sentence is ungrammatical, since actual can only be used before a noun, and the learner error is exposed. But without a firm grasp of how the word is used in the speaker's mother tongue, it is hard to extrapolate the meaning or correct the error.

The adverb actually poses perhaps more serious problems owing to the fact that it is generally used for emphasis, contradiction or confession in English, or sometimes merely as a sentence opener, whereas in many languages throughout the continent it is used to mean currently, at the present time. So if an English learner says 'Actually, I live in London', the actually hangs bewilderingly in the air like a contradiction, either of something said to them or of something they have said before. In some instances it could even sound confrontational. On the other hand, the intended implication that their living in London might be a temporary state of affairs is also lost in the confusion.

Further confusion lies in wait when a native English speaker decides to speak a foreign language such as French, for example, and opens with a handy, familiar actuellement: 'Actuellement, je suis Anglais' - 'I'm English at the moment'?; 'Actuellement, mon chien est mort' - 'My dog is currently dead'? Seizing on the foreign cognates of words we use so freely in our native language can lead to all kinds of consternation.


The trouble with eventual and eventually

These two words differ from actual and actually in that they have a real, identifiable meaning in English as opposed to being used to serve an emphatic function.

The Macmillan English Dictionary defines these two words as follows:

Eventual was borrowed into English from French in the 17th century, having come from Latin eventus, from the past participle evenire 'to happen'. Its original meaning, which was based on the notion of contingent possibility, or dependence on circumstances, is still the main meaning in many languages across Europe, but is now archaic in English. In English, if something is eventual or will happen eventually, it definitely does or will happen in the course of time. In many languages quite the opposite is true. Below are a few examples of eventual's cognates across Europe:

language cognate meaning
Czech eventuálníe contingent, possible, potential;
possibly, if any
German eventuell possible; adverb possibly, perhaps
French éventuel(le) possible
Russian eventualny possible
Italian eventuale if any, possible, probable;
in case, if necessary
Spanish eventual fortuitous; possible, contingent; casual, temporary
Danish eventuelt adverb possibly, perhaps; if necessary; if convenient
Dutch eventueel possible; adverb possibly, perhaps

This divergence in nuance can lead to considerable confusion. I once wrote to a French person I had arranged to have a meeting with saying 'I look forward to our eventual meeting'. My correspondent assumed that English eventual meant the same as French éventuel and thought that the possibility of our meeting was now in question (i.e. possible depending on circumstances), suspecting that I had changed my mind about our arrangements. The same problem can arise with actual/actually - the sentence sounds correct but interpretations can be based on misunderstanding. A learner of English might refer to 'eventual misunderstandings/problems', and to an English ear, it seems as though the speaker definitely sees trouble on the horizon.

In other cases, the sentence might just sound odd, as in 'Eventually, the opposite is true'. They might also sound presumptuous, as in 'I would like to visit you and eventually stay the night'. The learner is only tentatively putting forward a possibility, but a native speaker might well be put out. A mistranslation of éventuel in the Maastricht Treaty in 1991 is said to have caused an international incident. The original document talked about an éventuel single currency, meaning a possible one in the right circumstances, but this was translated as eventual, and therefore a foregone conclusion. It is easy to imagine the trouble talk of 'une guerre éventuelle' (correctly, 'a possible/potential war') could cause!


The trouble with important

Important is defined in the Macmillan English Dictionary as follows:

The dictionary also gives details about frequent collocations in the Words frequently used with important box. This says that common nouns used with important are aspect, element, factor, feature, issue, part and point. Another box lists the kinds of things that can be described as important. These are: people, events, issues/problems, achievements/discoveries, effects and facts.

Important has cognates in Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish. And in all of these languages, the same main meaning (i.e. significant, consequential) is shared. But this basically qualitative sense, shared with English, is also extended to a more quantitative sense describing size, extent, and degree. Thus, in Italian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, the variety of things which can be described as important is extended to include, for example, sums of money, buildings, periods of time, organizations, and even traffic.

It is terribly easy for Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish learners of English to assume that important can be used to describe the same things in English that it is used to describe in their mother tongue. The problem is that it can, but its meaning may be subtly different. It all depends on the nouns the adjective is being used to describe. Sometimes it is clear that a language interference mistake has been made. For instance, if a learner says 'There was important traffic in the city' or 'The train arrived after an important delay'. The learner has used important where a native speaker would use heavy and long, respectively. In other cases, important sits more comfortably with the noun it is used to describe, but still a question lingers, as with 'important financial benefits' or 'important cutbacks' - the native speaker might expect some further clarification as to the nature of their importance, but the learner is only saying that the benefits or cutbacks were great in extent. In other contexts, the learner's use of important starts to sound like hubris. When a learner claims that they work for the most important company in their region, or that their school is the most important school in their town, they probably just mean that their company/school is the biggest. On the other hand, it is impossible to be sure without asking for clarification.



The subtlety of these three false friends underlines the importance of sensitive collaboration between the native speaker and the learner in the task of clarifying meaning. Awareness of the potential pitfalls inherent in cognates is just the beginning. There is a great temptation, once aware of the possible problems, to adopt a policy of avoiding these words, but it is far more constructive to practise using them, at the same time always verifying that they are being correctly used and correctly understood.


Further reading

Hartmut Breitkreuz, More False Friends: tükische Fallen des deutsch-englischen Wortschatzes (Rowohlt, 1991)
Philip Thody & Howard Evans, Faux Amis & Key Words (Athlone Press, 1985)
Robert J. Hill, A Dictionary of False Friends (The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1982)
Cambridge International Dictionary of English, Ed. P. Procter (CUP, 1995)


Next in the series

In the next issue I will take a close look at the variety of false friends between German and English.