“Disinterested” Not the Same as “Uninterested”

By Maeve Maddox - 1 minute read

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The constant misuse of disinterested for uninterested is breaking down a very useful distinction of meaning.

To be uninterested is to be lacking in any sense of engagement with the matter:
Sallie is uninterested in algebra.

To be disinterested is to lack bias:
Let the company call in a disinterested mediator to settle the dispute.

The use of disinterest as a verb should probably be avoided:
Her husband tried to disinterest her in taking the course in German.
Better: Her husband tried to discourage her from taking the course in German.

If the person you are describing is not interested in something, use uninterested.

Save disinterested for the judge.

Here’s a quote from a NY Times article:

The passing of the old sense of interest took disinterestedness over the side along with it. Usage critics exaggerate when they lament the disappearance of the sense of disinterested that means, roughly, ”impartial.” That meaning still accounts for a majority of its uses in the press.

But disinterested isn’t a word that comes up much when we try to define political virtue. There’s no place to stand that’s free from what William Dean Howells called ”the sordid competition of interests,” now that interest itself has been given so broad a charter.

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7 Responses to ““Disinterested” Not the Same as “Uninterested””

  • Roshawn

    Glad to know this as I’m sure I’ve used the wrong word in my writings. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • Joseph Turcotte

    I’ve used both of these words wrong. I’m glad I finally know the distinction.

  • Marcus

    I don’t see the difference. I see people splitting hairs on these kinds of pages. On this page, the subjective argument is that one is a lack of bias, but you need a lack of bias if you don’t become engaged. I become engaged when I have a position. I don’t just robotically show interest for the sake of it. So, I can’t relate to the distinctions being made.

    I see one half of one, half of the other. Could go either way depending on how you see it.

  • Lou

    And of course, originally “uninterested” meant impartial. So technically, we are all wrong. Language changes. Deal with it.

  • Lou

    Oh, but Marcus, I could be a disinterested party to some sort of decision and at the same time be very interested by it. Eg, an election in a country I am not from. I can also be uninterested in politics in my own country, but certainly not disinterested as I have a stake in the outcome. So they are two different meanings. It’s just that the newer second sense of disinterest offends pedants. Who usually don’t know the history, and that actually they are using uninterested “incorrectly” by their definition of “correct”.

  • rikkog

    Lou – language DOES change, and it’s changed so that ‘uninterested’ now means ‘not interested’. So (i) ‘technically’ we are not all wrong, and (ii) YOU deal with it :o)

  • Jenny

    I believe we should preserve the meaning of “disinterested” as impartial because that definition is more useful than simply being an exact synonym to “uninterested.”

    “Impartial” holds many connotations. For me, it seems official–like an impartial mediator, someone who has purposefully shed themselves of bias.

    “Unbiased” feels more mundane to me. “Partial” is a pretty benign show of preference, but “biased” is quite strong. So, “unbiased” (lacking a strong preference) is mild.

    “Disinterest” seems more like simply having no interest, no investment, almost apathy.

    But “disinterested” as a synonym for “uninterested”? I can’t say how I would tell them apart. I can’t say that one word holds more meaning than the other, in that sense.

    It is the usefulness of words that truly matters.

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