Commonly Confused Words: Uninterested vs. Disinterested

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Recently a friend asked if I would write a blog post on the difference in meaning between the words ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’. She said that she kept hearing the words used interchangeably and that she was beginning to doubt that she was using the words correctly herself. Let’s take a look at this confusing pair of words…

Is there actually a difference between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’?

The beautiful (and annoying!) thing about the English language is its inconsistency – as with anything else, certain words and certain meanings (and sometimes even certain spellings!) go in and out of fashion. Language is ever-evolving and ever-changing, so what is deemed ‘correct’ often depends on how people are using it.

If you follow my blog posts for Spellzone, you may have noticed that usually I’m of the view that language should be defined by how it’s most widely used. When it comes to ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’, though, I think it’s really useful to have a different word to describe two slightly different ideas. If you do decide you want to use the words interchangeably, expect language/grammar enthusiasts to correct you!

What does each word mean?
Here’s how the Spellzone dictionary defines each word:

  • disinterested: “unaffected by self-interest
  • uninterested: “not having or showing interest” or “having no care or interest in knowing

Here are the words in example sentences:

  • His mother was so uninterested in his welfare, she didn’t realise he was failing at school.
  • It’s important that all the members of a jury are disinterested parties.

Why do people get mixed up between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’?
The reason these two words are confusing is because the prefixes un- and dis- both denote the reversal/cancellation of the thing that follows them. While un- has Germanic roots, dis- has Latin roots – yet another example of English words coming from all over the place!

Furthermore, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the words ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’ have meant different things at different times. In its earliest recorded meaning (c. 1610) ‘disinterested’ meant ‘unconcerned’, which is what ‘uninterested’ tends to mean today. The modern meaning of ‘disinterested’ (to be uninfluenced by personal bias) was first used in the 1650s. Before that (from c. 1600), the word ‘disinteressed’ was used to describe the same thing.

Uninterested’ dates back to the 1640s and is used to mean ‘unbiased’. The first recorded use of the word in its modern use (as a synonym for ‘unconcerned’) was in 1771.

What are some words that change meaning depending on whether they’re prefixed un- or dis-?
Some other examples of un- and dis- words that mean different things are:

  • Unaffected vs. Disaffected
  • Unqualified vs. Disqualified
  • Unarmed vs. Disarmed
  • Ungraceful vs. Disgraceful

What words do you find confusing? Let us know if there are any pairs of words you’d like us to write about, or if you’d like to read more about the un- and dis- words we’ve listed above.

Have a good week!

Avani Shah

07 Apr 2014
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