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The definition of 'reluctant'

Hello.

The definition of 'reluctant' is "unwilling and hesitant". I don't understand this definition, since I thought 'unwilling' meant that you refuse to do something. And if you are refusing to do something, how can you be hesitating (since that implies you are considering doing it)?

The definitions of 'unwilling' and 'reluctant' on the Oxford Learner's Dictionary website correspond to my understanding of each of these words:

Unwilling: https://oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/unwilling?q=unwilling

Reluctant: https://oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/reluctant?q=reluctant

And can't you be willing to do something (agreeing to do it) but also be reluctant (having reservations and not wanting to do it)? Like, a parent may reluctantly let their child have a smartphone - reluctant because they don't think it's healthy, but willing because they don't want their child to feel left out.

Am I misunderstanding these words? Or is the definition of 'reluctant' wrong?

Thank you.

Comments

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    @MitchMacKaye

    The definition of 'reluctant' is "unwilling and hesitant".

    No. The definition is

    Unwilling and hesitant; disinclined.
    /with infinitive/ ‘she seemed reluctant to answer’

    The second line makes all the difference.

    And can't you be willing to do something (agreeing to do it) but also be reluctant (having reservations and not wanting to do it)?

    No, not as I understand the words willing and reluctant.

    Like, a parent may reluctantly let their child have a smartphone

    This brings out the importance of /with infinitive/.
    Reluctant to refers forward to something that may or may not be done.
    Reluctantly refers back to something that actually was done.

    but willing because they don't want their child to feel left out.

    I would never use the word willingly here.

  • edited June 5

    @DavidCrosbie So, 'willing' and 'unwilling' actually refer to what one wants to do rather than to what one will/won't do by volition? I always thought it was just about volition, one's free will. I've heard them used often in reference to actions that people would prefer not to do but will do. Here's an actual example of my "willing but reluctant" idea: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=BE3Jqdnj3qgC&pg=PA247&lpg=PA247&dq=willing+albeit+reluctantly&source=bl&ots=9YGNtIhEcg&sig=ACfU3U39h8GNFyEirdiKDHBONFB3LWIrHQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiDx7zJkNHiAhVLSxUIHc7AAPkQ6AEwDHoECAYQAQ#v=onepage&q=willing%20albeit%20reluctantly&f=false

    If so, why is 'refuse', then, defined as "indicate or show that one is not willing to do something"? That suggests then that somebody might actually do something, but just expressing a desire not to.

    Thanks.

  • I think there must be two separate senses of willingness in actual usage: one being intention/volition of action, and one being what one wishes. I found this example:

    "3.6 A small number of employee members who are currently not making any payment have expressed a reluctant willingness to meet the required level of contribution, but this is less than 5% of those I have spoken with."

    There's a willingness because they will do it, but a reluctance because they'd much rather not. I think the dictionary fails to account for this distinction.

    Thanks.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    Your link leads to a page that is unavailable.

    If so, why is 'refuse', then, defined as "indicate or show that one is not willing to do something"? That suggests then that somebody might actually do something, but just expressing a desire not to.

    On the contrary, it suggests that in their mind there is no possibility that they might actually do it.
    (Though it might turn out that they were mistaken, that unforeseen circumstances forced them to do it.)

  • edited June 5

    @DavidCrosbie said:
    Your link leads to a page that is unavailable.

    If you refresh the page, it'll eventually show it, but here's the quote:

    "The ruling elite has reacted to this, not just by repression but also by being willing, albeit reluctantly, to contemplate form."

    On the contrary, it suggests that in their mind there is no possibility that they might actually do it.
    (Though it might turn out that they were mistaken, that unforeseen circumstances forced them to do it.)

    I must not have expressed myself clearly, because I agree with you that it means this. That's why I didn't understand "unwilling and hesitant", because to me "unwilling" suggests a mind made up ("I will not do it") but "hesitant" implies that you're at least considering it.

    When I Googled ""willing but reluctant"", I got a lot of results, which suggests that at least some people have the same understanding as I do: 'willing'/'unwilling' (at least in one sense) refers to what one will/will not voluntarily do, regardless of how one feels about it. Willing because done without being forced; reluctant because having reservations/preferring to not do it.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    Right, I've worked out what the difference is for me...

    • To be unwilling or reluctant to do something is a state of mind
    • To refuse to do something is to communicate that state of mind — typically with words, but possibly with a gesture,
  • @DavidCrosbie Oh, yes. I agree. I just think 'unwilling' (at least to some people) means something stronger than 'reluctant' - that they will not do the action in question, which makes the "unwilling and hesitant" definition of 'reluctant' confusing (if you are intent on not doing something, how could you be hesitating?). Hence, why you can find phrases like "willing but reluctant", "reluctantly willing", etc. in actual writing.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    This discussion raises two basic questions about dictionary definitions:
    1. What range of senses of a word should be identified?
    2. How do you communicate communicate them to a reader?

    And before answering either question, there's the even more basic question
    3. Whom wants to know?

    The OED has straightforward answers:
    1. As many as are recorded from all history, including obsolete uses.
    2. As precisely as possible.
    3. Scholars and language amateurs like you and me.

    Mass-readership dictionaries have trickier answers:
    1. Common uses in Present day English.
    2. A compromise between precision and intelligibility.
    3. Native speakers and fluent non-native readers.

    There's a significant market known as 'advanced learners' — with different answers:
    1. Only the most common uses.
    2. Maximum simplicity and clarity.
    3. Foreigners for whom bilingual dictionaries are insufficient, but standard dictionaries are too difficult to use.

    Book dictionaries are clearly marketed to a distinct group of users. Online dictionaries are put out with no control over who might use them. The reluctant entry you query suffers from being in an online dictionary attempting to satisfy too great a diversity of users.

    1. It selects only the reluctant to do something sense. This seems to exclude quite common uses such as a reluctant witness.
    2. It starts simply: unwilling and hesitant
    3. Who indeed? That's the problem.

    However, the definition is substantially better than your selective quote suggests:

    1. The full initial paraphrase includes disinclined.
      And More example sentences includes
      reluctant converts, reluctant acceptance, reluctant readers, reluctant heroes, reluctant hero
      Besides, the tag and hesitant highlights an important distinction.
    2. The phrase unwilling and hesitant and the single word disinclined are easy to process.
      Both are readily comprehensible to a native-speaker user and not too difficult for an 'advanced learner'.

    I'm quite a fan of a rival dictionary: Collins COBUILD targeted specifically at the 'advanced learner' market. Their solution to the communication problem is to abandon the traditional definition format in favour of a description of use.

    If you are reluctant to do something, you are unwilling to do it and hesitate before doing it, or do it slowly and without enthusiasm. EG He is reluctant to be photographed... Actresses used to be very reluctant to wear tight corsets... The reluctant bridegroom smiled for the first time...

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited June 8

    This sent me back to two old dictionaries of mine aimed at the 'advanced learner'. Neither is the latest edition, but I don't expect there's much difference in approach.

    The 1974 edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English has

    adj ~ (to do sth), (slow to act because) unwilling or disinclined to manage; ~ helpers. He seemed ~ to join us.

    The 1978 edition of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English has

    unwilling and therefore perhaps slow to act : reluctant helpers | to give a reluctant promise | He was very reluctant to help

    I don't have a copy of the Cambridge International Dictionary of English now renamed the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary of English but a version of it is available online:

    not willing to do something and therefore slow to do it:
    [ + to infinitive ] I was having such a good time I was reluctant to leave.
    Many parents feel reluctant to talk openly with their children.
    She persuaded her reluctant husband to take a trip to Florida with her.

    Like the Oxford Online dictionary, it offers more examples of use in sentences — only five, possibly because it's based on a book.

    It's notable that all the dictionaries for learners use unwilling as an approximate synonym — with various devices to express the nuances of difference.

    By contrast, the OED assumes that readers know and recognise this typical use of reluctant, and therefore give just enough to distinguish it from other uses

    2.
    a. Of a person: unwilling, averse; disinclined to do something.

    This clearly the foundation on which the Oxford Online 'definition' is based

    ADJECTIVE
    Unwilling and hesitant; disinclined.
    [with infinitive] ‘she seemed reluctant to answer’

    For a mixed readership they add

    • the word and — thus distinguishing from bare unwilling or bare hestitant
    • specific grammatical information [with infinitive]
    • one typical example of use
    • the option of More examples (20 of them)— including some which are semantically slightly difference
    • the option of Synonyms

    It's perhaps unfortunate that the description of word-meaning in a dictionary is known as a 'definition'.
    Most words are not terms and cannot be defined in the vigorous way that scientists define their terms.

    Unless the word is very unusual, readers want to know how a recognised word is used.
    Very often they don't even want to know that; they simply want to know the spelling.
    The function of a so-called 'definition' is to supply enough information for the reader to recognise that the word is actually the one they want to know about.

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