July 2, 2009

Language Tips: Partly or partially & Reticent, hesitant, and reluctant & More words to avoid

Posted in hesitant, partly or partially, pleonasm, reluctant, reticent at 7:04 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Partly or partially

People get it in their heads to worry about the strangest things. They get their dander up, and there’s seemingly no letting go. I was reminded about this recently when I was doing some research on today’s first tip. I wanted to see how others view the difference between ‘partially’ and ‘partly’ or if they even view a difference at all (I think there is a difference which I will explain in a bit). Yikes! The vehemence with which people argue about these poor words is quite breathtaking. So let me say right off the bat that I don’t believe that this is an earth shattering issue. Having said that, while there may be a trend towards using these words synonymously, I detect a difference between the two.

To me, ‘partly’ means ‘in part,’ that is, in one piece of a whole,’ but the focus is on the piece not the whole.

It is partly my fault the experiment failed; I forgot to check the pH.

I am claiming one piece of the blame, and that piece is the only thing I am concerned about.

Partially, to me, is a little different. It means incompletely.

I am partially to blame for the experiment failing.

I am claiming one piece of the blame; however, at the same time, I am saying there are other pieces of blame that belong to others. Instead of referring to just my piece of the blame as above, I am referencing the entire blame.

Let me try another example to further clarify the distinction that I see.

The data were partially analyzed using qualitative methods.

To me, this sentence says that the data were not completely analyzed, but the portion that was analyzed involved using qualitative methods.

The data were partly analyzed using qualitative methods.

On the other hand, this sentence says that the data were analyzed, and some of the analyses were done qualitatively, implying that other analyses were quantitative.

Let me try one more:

We wouldn’t say ‘the cat was partly housebroken,’ or ‘man was partly deaf.’ We would say ‘the cat was partially housebroken’ or ‘the man was partially deaf’. I believe we choose ‘partially’ because we are considering the whole condition. The cat is not completely housebroken, and the man is not completely deaf.

But, as I said, I don’t think this is an earth shattering issue. If you do not parse the difference, that’s fine. I do recommend that you use ‘partly’ more often than ‘partially’ for the sake of simplicity.

Don’t forget that ‘partial’ has another meaning which is ‘being biased’ or ‘having preference for.’ Some references said this use is obsolete. Now this is something I COULD get vehement about: I’m quite partial to ‘partial.’

Tip 2: Reticent, reluctant, hesitant

Word watchers bemoan what they view as an inevitable erosion of precise meanings. I don’t believe it is inevitable, and I think we can take a stand. ‘Reticent’ means ‘silent’ or ‘reluctant to speak.’ It should not be used to mean ‘reluctant’ or ‘hesitant,’ although ‘reticence’ can be considered a kind of ‘reluctance.’ ‘While ‘reluctant’ means ‘disinclined,’ and ‘hesitant’ means ‘unwilling or slow to act decisively,’ ‘reticent’ refers only to one kind of reluctance, that of speaking. If you are ‘reticent,’ you are silent. It is as simple as that.

We extol precision in our research, and similarly, we should commend precision in our language. Let’s not be reluctant to preserve the true meaning of reticent.

More words to avoid

We talked about pleonasms a while back (pleonasm is the use of more words than necessary for clear understanding). In tip 1, I stated to write something about the meaning of words evolving over time. Thankfully, I stopped myself–evolving–overtime? A pleonasm if I every heard one. So I dug up a list of some other wordy expressions we should avoid in our writing, and I offer them here.

advance warning
already existing
alternative choices
at the present time
currently under way
completely eliminate
continue to remain
currently being
doctorate degree
end result
evolve over time
exactly the same
first began
had done previously
introduced a new
mix together
most optimal
never before
new innovation
none at all
now at this time
period of time
personal opinion
private industry
separate entities
start out
still persists
whether or not



  1. marcela said,

    thanks Deb, excellent as usual!

    I do wonder about 2 of your examples of pleonasms:
    – although not in this most capitalist of countries, the Third World still has and the Soviet Union definitely had much of its manufacturing owned and managed by the government…
    – your advise against using whether or not rings logical and it sounds ok for some sentence constructions but how about “whether you like it or not, this is how it’ll happen” (“whether you like it… it’ll happen”??)


  2. david said,

    What do you think about “prior research?” I see this all the time in papers and grants and I wonder why “research” isn’t the better choice. If it wasn’t “prior” the authors would not be able to comment on it!

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