Monday, April 5, 2010

LANGUAGE 01: The Reticent/Reluctant Hesitation

In today's Chronicles of Higher Education, Gabriela Montela writes in the On Hiring column:
"In a recent post, Lesboprof chides herself for having been reticent about pursuing a leadership position in academe...."
Montela quotes a portion of the blog that does not contain the word RETICENT.  I checked the actual post, however, and it does mention "reticence."  Whoever's word it is, it is wrong.

Had the blogger been RETICENT, then she would have applied for the job but not told her friends about it. What she describes is being RELUCTANT to pursue (not RETICENT about pursuing) the position.  Indeed her reluctance turned to refusal: she never did apply.

RELUCTANT may not be precisely the right word, but RETICENT is absolutely wrong.

RETICENT/RELUCTANT confusion, which I hadn't noticed at all until Mary F. White, friend and writer, pointed it out a couple of years ago, is exploding.  I see it at least once a month.  I have three theories to explain this latest word abuse.

The first is the same as my theory about why begs the question is so often misused to mean raises the question and why disinterested is used when uninterested is meant.  It goes like this:  some very influential journalism professor made these mistakes.  Ne*  taught generations of students, some of whom went on to teach journalism themselves, and the gospel of misuse spread.
*NE is my preferred neuter subject pronoun.  (See this post.)  It liberates me from having to assign he or she to an unknown person, or having to recast my thoughts in plural.  The object pronoun is NER. The possessive is NIS.
The second theory is that many writers use a dictionary or thesaurus to choose their words. Not being voracious readers themselves, they don't actually have a working vocabulary of more than a few hundred words. They run into trouble either because dictionary definitions lack context or because thesauruses list synonyms without explaining nuances or limitations in application.   (The edition of Wordly Wise, a popular text for middle school English classes, used by my daughter's class in 2005, was plagued by this problem.  Its authors and editors seemed untroubled that all too often the sample sentences seemed to have been written by recent arrivals from Mars whose only resource was an abridged dictionary.)

My third theory is specific to this error.  It is that RETICENT, because it rhymes with HESITANT (by sound although not by spelling), is what people think of when they want a word that starts with R that means hesitant. But Cockney slang aside, rhyming is no clue to meaning.  RELUCTANT is the word they seek.

Here are my definitions for these two words, based on years of reading and listening to writers and speakers who respect the language. I have no idea whether any dictionary says this, but trust me: I'm right.

RETICENT means unforthcoming verbally, usually because of shyness or modesty.  Reticence is a special form of close-mouthedness.  Close-mouthed, however, has connotations of hiding the facts on purpose, being secretive. There's a negative criticism lirking in close-mouthed.  Reticent is neutral, even sometimes laudatory.  See example below.

A person who is RETICENT exhibits a particular kind of RELUCTANCE: a reluctance TO SPEAK. Example:  Ne* was RETICENT about nis achievements; ne hated boasting.

RELUCTANT, on the other hand, means HESITANT. RELUCTANT often reflects a moral hesitation or other personal circumstance (reluctant because once bitten, because in poor physical shape, because of the cost), while HESITANT is more neutral, more all-purpose.

RELUCTANT is not specific to the action of speaking. If what you hesitate to do is a non-verbal activity -- applying for a job, running down the street, buying a house -- then you are RELUCTANT to take the action.

If the thing you hesitate to do is speak, you may be RETICENT about the subject matter.

Another clue: reticent is followed by ABOUT, and ABOUT is followed by the noun describing what you would have said if you hadn't been reticent. RETICENT ABOUT should never be followed by an action.  If the word after ABOUT is a form of verb ending in ING, change RETICENT to RELUCTANT.  (That's right even for communication. Instead of Reticent about talking about X just write reticent about X.)

The word after RETICENT should never be TO.

RELUCTANT is followed by an infinitive (TO + VERB).  "Reluctant about" sounds funny to my mental ear. I'd probably redpencil "reluctant about Xing" to "reluctant to X," or I'd make it 'hesitant about Xing.'  Hesitant works better with ABOUT.  The right H word with TO, in my mental ear, is the verb HESITATE.  Please don't hesitate to write if you have a comment or question.

ALSO:  Please spread the word.  Or rather,  the WORDS.

April 5, 2010
rev 4/6/10; 10/10/14


  1. A law school classmate, Nancy Holland, an exceptionally careful and concerned (and voracious) reader, balked at one of my sentences because I used "while" but was not speaking of time.
    I was talking about conditions that coexisted: temporal simultaneities, I might say, rather than temporal comparisons. Time was not my main concern, however.
    An example of the Holland use of WHILE that comes immediately to mind is "Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde while the band played on." Alas, I just checked the actual lyrics and the word is AND, not WHILE. OK: "Nero fiddled while Rome burned."
    I accept the Holland rule, and will always check my whiles by mentally substituting "during the time when."
    That leads me to change my sentence from "While X, Y" to "X, but Y." It is punchier that way, too. As my daughter's sewing teacher used to say, there are no mistakes, only opportunities.

  2. My cousin Eric Siegel who lives in France points out that in French the word "reticence" applies to both speech and action. Thus both reticence and reluctance are translated as réticence.
    That may explain why the translators of two books I recently read in English that were written in French, the Fred Vargas mystery Have Mercy on Us All and Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog used reticence for reluctance.
    Should I add translating from the French as my fourth theory?

  3. I would distinguish between reluctant and hesitant slightly differently. One is reluctant to do something because, for whatever reason, one doesn't want to do it--whereas one is hesitant because one is uncertain. "I was reluctant to take a job in Seattle because it's so far from my family." But, "I was hesitant to take a job in Seattle because I didn't know anybody there."

  4. To Mary F. White's distinction between reluctance and hesitation: YES. I definitely use the words exactly as you describe. Hesitation can include reluctance, but not exactly vice versa.
    Mental images: Hesitation has more to do with motion, physical motion; reluctance has more to do with thought. A reluctant person hangs back; a hesitator teeters at the brink. Someone who is reluctant would really rather not; someone who hesitates could go either way.
    There is also a subtle difference for me between hesitates and is hesitant; the latter starts shading over into reluctance!