Irreparable vs. Unrepairable

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

What are the differences between the use of “unrepairable” and “irreparable?”

Pronunciation note:
Unrepairable: un-ree-PAIR-uh-buhl
Irreparable: i-REP-uh-ruh-buhl

Both words are used to mean “incapable of being mended,” but unrepairable is nonstandard in American usage.

Some online dictionaries include entries for unrepairable, but others do not.

If you use any of the following free online dictionaries, you won’t find an entry for unrepairable in them:

Longman
Macmillan
American Heritage
The Free Dictionary
Cambridge (no entry in either the US or UK section)

If your free dictionary of choice is one of the following, you will find entries for unrepairable in them:

Collins
Oxford Dictionaries (including the section for US English)
Dictionary.com (based on the American Random House dictionary)

Of the resources I rely on, the American dictionary Merriam-Webster Unabridged lacks an entry for unrepairable, but The Oxford English Dictionary lists the word with nine citations dating from 1600 to 2006—without any suggestion that the word is nonstandard.

Another of my stalwarts, The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, gives unrepairable without comment as a synonym for irreparable.

Some commenters on language sites discern a difference of connotation, suggesting that unrepairable should be used to describe such things as damaged bicycles, toasters, and edifices, whereas irreparable should be reserved for reputations and things that are not man-made, like the environment. The following quotations illustrate the supposed distinction:

Apple’s New Retina MacBook Pro is the Most Unrepairable Laptop to Date. 

The bike, a Ninja 300, was written off as unrepairable after the collision .

BUT,

Attachment trauma, neglect and abuse cause irreparable damage in the developing neurons of the brain.

An increase in cruise ships in the area threatens to cause irreparable damage to the continent’s pristine environment. 

Such a distinction no doubt appeals to some people, but the futility of getting everyone to observe it is obvious to anyone who has ever tried to explain the difference between uninterested and disinterested.

In practice, unrepairable and irreparable seem to be regarded as exact synonyms:

Most automobile insurance policies cover the costs to repair a vehicle after a collision or some other insured cause, or if the damage is irreparable, the actual cash value of the vehicle.

[The report] asserted that radiation exposure did unrepairable harm to genetic material and increased the probability of defects and mutations in future generations. 

Incorrectly installed knives can cause irreparable damage to both the knives and the rotor, leading to serious destruction within the machine.
Chlorine-free diapers are the same as regular disposables, and they won’t expose your children to harsh chemicals or cause unrepairable harm to the environment.

I found this example of unrepairable in a legal context that definitely calls for irreparable:

According to Stern, all three parties involved “have made public remarks that are totally untrue, with evil malicious harmful intent to do the reputation and character of the plaintiff unrepairable harm.”

The phrase “irreparable harm” is an established legal term. Its meaning is “harm that cannot be reversed or repaired.”

The bottom line for American speakers is that unrepairable is nonstandard—for now.

Note: Two other nonstandard forms sometimes seen are irrepairable and nonrepairable.

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4 Responses to “Irreparable vs. Unrepairable”

  • Bob Rennegarbe

    One of our recent middle school vocab words-the kids hate it because they want to pronounce it ir-repair-able.
    Thanks

  • thebluebird11

    IMHO, I believe that the word unrepairable is a legitimate word when referring to something as mentioned (bikes, toasters, etc). I would also venture to say that it might be acceptable when referring to the human body (e.g. an unrepairable hernia or torn rotator cuff). However, I also agree that the word irreparable should be reserved for the other uses as mentioned above (reputations, environment, etc). That’s just my 2 cents. I don’t find myself using either word too often, but certainly would not be surprised to see either one used in the US in the contexts mentioned above.

  • Craig

    This may be an example of the language evolving and changing. While dictionaries may be authoritative, for living languages they are descriptive and not prescriptive.

  • venqax

    If unrepairable isn’t recognized by any but a handful of non-discriminating sources I think it’s hard to argue that it is a legitimate word. That is not to we wouldn’t know what someone meant when he used it, but that’s true of spsghetti and irrevelant, too.

    It must be said with great emphasis, however, since it is one of the words at hand that the word irreparable is pronounced ir-REP- rib’l with the stress on the second syllable, and NOT ir-re PAIR-ib’l with the stress as the word would be without the prefix. Likewise in/comparable, infatigalble, illustrative, etc.

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