The Difference Between “Un-” and “Dis-“

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks about differences between the prefixes un- and dis-.

The question is not easy to address.

The prefix un- has been in the language longer than dis-.

The Old English prefix on- (now spelled un-) was added to verbs to indicated a reversal of the action:

wind/unwind
bind/unbind
fold/unfold
do/undo

This prefix has remained alive, giving us such verb opposites as:

fasten/unfasten
buckle/unbuckle
cover/uncover
wrap/unwrap

Old English also had the prefix of negation un- that was added to adjectives, such as unborn and unburied. We continue to form negative adjectives in this way:

unhappy
unknown
unwanted
unavailable
unconventional
uncool
unputdownable

Dis- came into English during the Middle English period, along with many Latin and French words. The prefix dis- is related to bis, (two), and can be used in the sense of separation:

disjoin
disable

In the course of centuries, distinctions between un- and dis- have blurred. Sometimes the prefixes are interchangeable. Sometimes not.

Sometimes a perceived difference may exist only in the mind of the individual English speaker.

Many speakers distinguish between disorganized and unorganized.

Disorganized applies to the sort of person who stuffs receipts into the sock drawer and can never find the car keys. Unorganized applies to things which have not yet been arranged in an organized manner. By this reasoning, a person would be disorganized, but an office would be unorganized.

At one time, unease and disease (first syllable stressed) could be used interchangeably with the meaning “state of anxiety.” Now disease (second syllable stressed) has taken on the meaning of “illness.”

Angry arguments are waged over the differentiated meanings of uninterest and disinterest. The argument is that uninterested should be used with the sense of “indifferent, lacking in interest, while disinterested should be used only when the intended meaning is “impartial.” Some argue against the distinction on historical grounds, but the perceived difference in modern usage is a useful one.

When it comes to language, those who value logic above all else are just asking for elevated blood pressure.

For example, the noun discontent is matched with the adjective discontented, but the adjective that corresponds to the noun discomfort is uncomfortable.

About all one can safely say about the use of the prefixes un- and dis- is that their correct use is often a matter of idiom.

The best way to master them is to read, listen, and look up questionable forms in a trustworthy dictionary.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


7 Responses to “The Difference Between “Un-” and “Dis-“”

  • Brad K.

    Ooh! A pithy phrase, indeed! “Trustworthy dictionary.”

    What makes a dictionary trustworthy?

  • Maeve

    Brad K.,
    I admit it. I was being deliberately slippery. You might want to look at this post: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/battle-of-the-dictionaries/

  • M.Naim.Rassa

    Is there any difference between un- and Non perfixes

  • Kitty Wheat

    Naim,

    Although both “un” and “non” mean “not,” they are not interchangeable. For example, in such words as “nonsense,” non-fiction,” “non-alcoholic,” “non-profit,” “non-descript,” “non-compliance,” etc., we cannot change “non” to “un.” By the same token, we cannot change “un” to “non” in such words as those listed below:
    “unconstitutional,” unkind,” “unkempt,” “unknown,” etc. Do you see what I mean?

  • Azimah

    what ‘such’ means?give me some example how to use this word..i am confuse to use it..and what difference between it is, is it,its and it’s?please help me

  • Steve

    Ok.. I have a question concerning the difference between “un” and “non.” We have Stabilized platforms that require a mechanical means to provide the stabilization. We also have platforms that have no stabilization, but may actually have it in the future.

    To the best of my understanding, those platforms should be “unstabilized,” as they have the ability to be stabilized later. Much like “unhappy,” where I can be happy later – but nonhappy doesn’t really work well as it indicates perpetual misery.

    So, should it be “unstabilized” or “nonstabilized?”

    Any help with the office argument of the day would be greatly appreciated!

  • Maeve

    Steve,
    For the platforms lacking stabilization, the term called for is “nonstabilized.”

    The prefix “un-” is really two prefixes. One is added to verbs to indicate reversal; the other is added to adjectives to indicate the opposite of the positive form of the adjective.

    The addition of non- has the sense of “absence or lack of.” It does not matter whether or not the platform may be stabilized in future. You want to describe a platform that does not have the stabilization now. It is “nonstabilized.” It lacks stabilization.

    More about “un-” and “non-“: http://bottomlineenglish.com/when-to-use-the-negative-prefixes-un-and-non

Leave a comment: