The Grammarphobia Blog

Reality check

Q: I’m increasingly irritated by the growing use of “Really?” at the beginning or end of newspaper headlines (e.g., “Really? Squatter lives in Ann Curry’s townhome”). I suppose there’s nothing technically wrong with it, but it seems a slangy and childish construction. I hope this fad soon fades. Just what is “really,” really?

A: The word “really” really gets a workout in the news, not only in headlines but in broadcast journalism.

The writers of Saturday Night Live, for example, spoof this tendency in occasional Weekend Update segments called “REALLY!?!”

The headline example you cite (“Really? Squatter lives in Ann Curry’s townhome”) comes from the Orange County Register.

The California daily regularly uses the word as an apparent play on “real estate” (“Real estate news and views from around the globe that make you go, ‘Really?’ ”)

The New York Times regularly uses “Really?” with headlines on a column about health facts and fictions: “Really? The Claim: To Prevent Migraines, Drink More Water.”

But “really” shows up in a lot of other Times headlines. A search of the newspaper’s archive finds 181 “really” headlines over the last 12 months. Here are a few:

“A Mandate? Not Really” …  “Weiner Was Not the Topic. Really.” … “Who Really Won? It’s Not So Simple” … “Really, New York Has Had Snowier Winters” … “What’s Dumb, Really?” … “Really, Really Last-Minute Gifts” … “When a Tax Isn’t Really a Tax.”

The adverb “really” may sound slangy or childish to you, but it’s been standard English for hundreds of years.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word, which entered English around 1425, this way: “In reality; in a real manner. Also: in fact, actually.”

In the 18th century, the OED says, the word took on the sense in the example you cite: “Interrogatively, expressing surprise or doubt.”

The OED’s first example of this usage is from Samuel Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54): “ ‘The Count of Belvedere. He was more earnest in his favour — ’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, really — than I thought he ought to be.’ ”

We’d describe the use of “really” in those headlines above as casual or informal, not slangy or childish.

But we agree with you that headline writers have been giving “really” a real workout lately. They really ought to give it a rest.

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