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Disinterested and Uninterested

Commonly Confused Words

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Disinterested and Uninterested

James J. Kilpatrick, The Writer's Art (Andrews McMeel, 1984)

The adjective disinterested means impartial and without bias.

The adjective uninterested means indifferent or unconcerned.

See also: Skunked Term. Also see the usage notes below.

Examples:

  • "I had a great desire to do a disinterested and pure thing--to express my belief in something higher."
    (Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King, 1959)

  • "Disinterested intellectual curiosity is the life blood of real civilization." (G. M. Trevelyan)

  • "Americans are not isolationist; they're uninterested. So foreign policy is neglected, presidents find it hard to lead, and the noisy few trump the quiet many." (James M. Lindsay, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2000)

Usage Notes:

  • "Precious (at least to lawyers) is the distinction between disinterested and uninterested. A person is uninterested in a thing if it holds no interest for them; if they prefer to give their attention to other things. So, I am interested in music and sculpture, but I am uninterested in golf and stamp-collecting. To be disinterested, however, is to have no stake in the subject matter. Judges should be interested in cases they decide, but they must be disinterested in them. Increasingly, the two words are used interchangeably. It is now unsafe to say 'disinterested' unless you are confident that your intended audience will understand the true meaning. An important distinction is being lost."
    (Julian Burnside, Word Watching. Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004)


  • "You can be disinterested in something but not uninterested, and vice versa. For instance, because I'm not a betting man, I don't stand to gain or lose anything in the outcome of most sporting events; I might still enjoy watching a game: I'm disinterested but not uninterested. Conversely, I might not care about the intricacies of tax policies, but I certainly have a stake in the outcome: I'm uninterested but not disinterested."
    (Jack Lynch, "Disinterested versus Uninterested," The English Language: A User's Guide. Focus Publishing, 2008)


  • "In traditional usage, disinterested can only mean 'having no stake in an outcome,' as in Since the judge stands to profit from the sale of the company, she cannot be considered a disinterested party in the dispute. But despite critical disapproval, disinterested has come to be widely used by many educated writers to mean 'uninterested' or 'having lost interest,' as in Since she discovered skiing, she is disinterested in her schoolwork. Oddly enough, 'not interested' is the oldest sense of the word, going back to the 17th century. This sense became outmoded in the 18th century but underwent a revival in the first quarter of the early 20th. Despite its resuscitation, this usage is widely considered an error. In a 1988 survey, 89 percent of the Usage Panel rejected the sentence His unwillingness to give five minutes of his time proves that he is disinterested in finding a solution to the problem. This is not a significantly different proportion from the 93 percent who disapproved of the same usage in 1980."
    (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., 2000)


  • "A large number of educated speakers and writers, for whatever reason, object to disinterested in the sense 'uninterested, unconcerned'--a sense it previously had but lost for awhile--and want the word to have only the meaning 'impartial, unprejudiced.' The criticized use has nevertheless gained such ground that it has practically driven out the other one. That change causes no harm to language as communication. We have merely lost a synonym for impartial and gained one for indifferent."
    (John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 6th ed. Wadsworth, 2010)

Practice:

(a) A lively, _____, persistent looking for truth is extraordinarily rare. (Henri Amiel)

(b) There are no uninteresting things; there are only _____ people.

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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