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In writing fiction, I find myself using the word "absentmindedly" a lot, but I don't think it's really the word I'm looking for. I'm not looking so much something done in a distracted manner, but something done sort of half-consciously, without really thinking about it. Not habitual either, but perhaps almost instinctual.

For instance:

As James watched the other girl climb higher, he shuddered to think of his own sister being in such danger, and put his arm absentmindedly around her.

What I'm trying to relate is that he wasn't making a conscious move to comfort or embrace his sister, he just did it without thinking.

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You probably shouldn't ask an adverb or adjective to do so much work for you. If you mean to say somebody wasn't paying full attention, say so. Spend an extra sentence. Don't expect your readers to fill in for you. –  John Lawler Jun 7 '13 at 16:16
    
I do not see anything wrong with " . . . as he almost un-consciously put his arm around her." Or, start a new sentence, as John Lawler suggests. "Without thinking he put his arm around her." –  rhetorician Jun 7 '13 at 17:27
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Though I agree with @JohnLawler here, I would also suggest "mechanically" as another synonym that might work in similar contexts. –  JeffSahol Jun 7 '13 at 18:34

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The word instinctively fits here.

As James watched the other girl climb higher, he shuddered to think of his own sister being in such danger, and instinctively put his arm around her.

The action is done without thinking about it, as an innate reaction to thinking of the danger and protecting his sister.

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Thanks. I had initially dismissed that (absentmindedly, perhaps), but now that I actually see it in use, I like it. –  sh1ftst0rm Jun 7 '13 at 18:27

My initial thought is sub-consciously would be a suitable choice.

I prefer that to almost un-consciously suggested in some of the comments.

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