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December 19th, 2007

Do in let's do / reticent / first-generation

by Barbara Wallraff

Thomas Armbrecht, of Madison, Wis., writes: “Is it correct to say, ‘Let’s do go to town today’ -- or anything else beginning with ‘Let’s do’ and then a verb? Obviously, the ‘do’ isn’t needed.”

Dear Thomas: “Do” is a remarkably handy little word with many jobs to, um, do. One of these is adding emphasis -- its function in your example sentence, which is perfectly correct. Nonetheless, you’re right to wonder whether the “do” there is redundant with the main verb, “go.” “Let’s do” can be a complete thought, after all, and in this case it would mean the same thing as “Let’s go to town.”

But your “do” is no more redundant than the extra “very” in “I’m very, very eager to go to town today.” The general meaning would be the same without it, but the tone would change. Sometimes such words are useless or even counterproductive, throwing the tone off -- but sometimes they serve a purpose. We word-lovers should keep in mind something Mae West said: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

Ruth-Ellen Cohen, of Bangor, Maine, writes: “Many people use the word ‘reticent’ in place of ‘reluctant.’ I don’t believe the two are interchangeable. According to the dictionary, ‘reticent’ means ‘uncommunicative.’ So I would think that saying someone is ‘reticent to comment’ is redundant. I would also think that saying someone is ‘reticent’ to go somewhere or do something makes no sense, since the word pertains only to speech. Am I correct?”

Dear Ruth-Ellen: Today seems to be the day for redundancy questions. Your point of view is certainly the traditional one -- for good reason. As the New Oxford American Dictionary explains, “reticent” comes from the Latin prefix “re- (expressing intensive force)” plus the verb “tacere ‘be silent.’” Etymologically, the word is about keeping quiet.

The New Oxford American is, however, the only one of five major American and Canadian dictionaries to agree with you completely. All of the others give definitions that include words like “restrained” and “understated,” and two say “reluctant” is a synonym.

In fact, “reticent” and “reluctant” overlap in meaning. Consider this sentence from a Washington Post article earlier this month: “Many partners in Facebook’s Beacon seem reticent to address the raging privacy controversy surrounding the ad program, resorting to terse, vague statements or opting for outright silence when asked for comment.” Here “reluctant” could be substituted for “reticent,” and “address” means something very like the “comment” you object to. But still, “reticent to address” is hard to fault, because the sense of the phrase is “restrained about speaking.” The word is truly wrong only where “reticent” alone would convey the same meaning or where there’s no sense of keeping quiet -- as in your examples of someone’s being “reticent” to go somewhere or do something.

Nancy Colina, of Grosse Ile, Mich., writes: “What exactly does ‘first-
generation’ mean? Is it the person who came over to this country from elsewhere, or the child of that person who is in the first generation born in this country?”

Dear Nancy: Annoyingly enough, both of those uses are considered correct. Wondering which meaning was the original one, I looked up “first-generation” in the older dictionaries in my library. The earliest to include the term at all, from the 1960s, gives both of them.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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