30th July 2019
Word Choice: Reluctant vs. Reticent
“Reluctant” and “reticent” are both adjectives that mean “unwilling.” They also look similar written down, so it’s no wonder people use these terms interchangeably. But there is a difference between “reluctant” and “reticent,” so check out our guide to make sure you can use them correctly.
Reluctant (Unwilling or Slow to Do Something)
To be “reluctant” is to be unwilling or hesitant to do something. For example:
I was reluctant to leave before the fireworks.
You can use this term in any situation where someone is resistant to something, so it has a wide range of possible uses.
This flexibility is reflected in the origins of this term, which comes from a Latin word meaning “struggle.” As such, if we are struggling to bring ourselves to do anything, we can say we feel “reluctant” about it.
Reticent (Unwilling to Speak)
While “reticent” also implies being unwilling or hesitant about something, it applies specifically to speaking or revealing our thoughts and feelings:
Tom was reticent about why he left the party.
Here, we’re not saying that Tom was “reluctant” to leave a party. We’re saying he was unwilling to tell us why he left the party.
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We can also use “reticent” to describe someone’s character in general:
Hannah has been reticent for as long as I’ve known her.
Even in this case, though, the word “reticent” suggests that Hannah is quiet and reserved in particular. It does not mean she is “unwilling” in other ways. And we would not use “reluctant” to describe a personal trait like this.
Again, looking at the origins of this word can help us understand how it is used in modern English: “reticent” comes from reticere, which means “silent” in Latin. Thus, if we are “reticent,” we are being quiet about something.
Reluctant or Reticent?
Although some now use “reticent” to mean “unwilling” in any context, it would be a mistake to do this in formal writing. So to avoid errors, remember that “reticent” has a more specific meaning than “reluctant”:
- To be reluctant is to be unwilling to do something.
- To be reticent is to be unwilling to speak or reveal your thoughts.
If you can remember this distinction, you should be able to use these terms correctly. But if you want to be extra sure that your writing is error free, you can also submit a document to our outstanding proofreading service.
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