“disinterested” versus “uninterested”

The most vibrant parts of life are colored by nuance. It is simple to say that someone is enthusiastic about something, but if we choose excited, zealous, or passionate instead, we can add a whole new dimension of meaning to the same piece of writing.

Similarly, a person who is not enthusiastic about something could be said to be bored, uninterested, or apathetic. What nuances in meaning do these choices unlock?

What is the Difference Between Disinterested and Uninterested?

In this article, I will discuss disinterested vs. uninterested. I will use each word in example sentences, so you can it in its proper context.

Plus, I will show you a useful memory tool that will let you know whether you are disinterested or uninterested in something.

When to Use Uninterested

What does uninterested mean? Uninterested is an adjective. It means inattentive or unconcerned.

Here are a few examples,

  • “I am uninterested in politics,” said Aiden, a sports aficionado.
  • The kids are uninterested in our vacation plans, so they will have to put up with whatever destination we choose.
  • The teacher heaped praise on Karl Pearson’s statistical testing method, but her students were uninterested.
  • But the Epix launch came amid the Great Recession, and pay-TV distributors initially were uninterested in adding another expensive movie channel to their line-ups. –LA Times

If you are sitting bored in a classroom, you are uninterested in the subject matter. In this sense, uninterested is a synonym for bored, unenthusiastic, not excited, etc.

When to Use Disinterested

What does disinterested mean? Disinterested is also an adjective. Its noun form is disinterest. Disinterested is a rough synonym for impartial, but it also describes the condition of not standing to gain from taking a side.

In other words, a disinterested person can be unbiased because no judgment he could make in a given situation would benefit him.

Here are some examples of disinterested in a sentence,

  • Kelly is a good referee because her kids don’t play soccer, so she is disinterested in the outcome of the matches.
  • Aunty Kim always tries to be fair when she settles her nephews’ arguments, but she cannot be said to be completely disinterested.
  • Disinterest is an admirable quality in a federal judge.
  • That unethical encounter had tainted Lynch’s pose of disinterested adjudication, and she accordingly de facto fobbed off her prosecutorial responsibilities to Comey. –National Review

Disinterested is often used in place of uninterested to mean bored or uncaring. Though common, this usage is imprecise and should be avoided.

If you are a journalist or news writer, The AP Stylebook states, “Disinterested means impartial, which is usually the better word to convey the thought. Uninterested means that someone lack interest.”

Trick to Remember the Difference

As noted above, disinterested is often misused as a synonym for uninterested. Still, these words have separate meanings, and should be used as such.

  • To be disinterested is to be unbiased and impartial.
  • To be uninterested is to be inattentive or bored.

To help you remember uninterested vs. disinterested, remember that someone who is disinterested has no dog in the fight. Since disinterested and dog each begin with the letter D, this should be an easy image to remember.

Summary

Is it disinterested or uninterested? Disinterested and uninterested are adjectives. Disinterested means unbiased, while uninterested means inattentive. Disinterest is sometimes used to mean both of these things.

As a memory aid, remember that disinterested people have no dog in the race. Disinterested and dog each begin with the same letter, so you should have no trouble picking disinterested or uninterested in your writing.

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Remember, you can always reread this article any time you need a quick refresher.

Usage tip: “Disinterested” or “uninterested?” Which is it?

The primary meaning of “disinterested” (Oxford English Dictionary) is “impartial,” or “not interested by considerations of personal advantage.” But, very surprisingly, its earliest recorded sense is “not interested” (i.e. a synonym for “uninterested”).

  • Using “disinterested” to mean uninterested is widespread, but the OED says it “should be avoided in careful writing.”
  • In Garner’s Modern American Usage, etymologist Bryan Garner distinguishes between the nouns, “disinterest” and “uninterest”: For “disinterest,” he cites “(1) impartiality or freedom from bias or from chance of financial benefit [‘the judge showed disinterest in the way every judge should’].”
  • Garner also cites the other use: “(2) lack of concern or attention [‘the team suffered from the disinterest of their traditional supporters]” (Garner 260).

Of this distinction, he writes that “leading writers and editors almost unanimously reject sense 2, in which uninterest . . . is the better term, because it’s unambiguous” (Garner 260). These writers and editors he refers to as “traditionalists.”

Garner writes that “given the overlapping nouns [“disinterest” and “uninterest”], . . . writers have found it difficult to keep the past-participial adjectives [“disinterested” and “uninterested”] entirely separate, and many have given up the fight to preserve the distinction between them.”

But he adds this: “the distinction is still the best recognized and followed because ‘disinterested’ captures a nuance that no other word quite does. Many influential writers have urged preservation of its traditional sense.”

Garner says that usage expert A.R. Orage “rhapsodied over” the term, “disinterested.

” Orage wrote in 1922 that “ ‘ No word in the English language is more difficult [than disinterested] to define or better worth attempting to define. . . .

it contains all of the ideas of ethics and even, I should say, of religion . . . . whoever has understood the meaning of ‘disinterestedness’ is not far off understanding the goal of human culture’ ” (Orage 29).

Confused Words | Disinterested and Uninterested

The words disinterested and uninterested can be confusing. They are both in the negative form but they have different meanings. Disinterested refers to someone who is not influenced by considerations of personal advantage. Disinterested people stand on a neutral position and are impartial. Uninterested, however, means not interested in or concerned about something or someone. An uninterested person is someone who doesn't care…

Disinterested or Uninterested

disinterested

The an adjective disinterested is used to describe an unbiased person: a person who is impartial, or not influenced by personal feelings, opinions, or concerns…

Synonyms:

unbiased, unprejudiced, impartial, neutral, nonpartisan, detached, uninvolved, objective, dispassionate, impersonal..

Examples:

  • They were disinterested and helped us resolve the dispute.
  • The UN sent disinterested observers.
  • Let me give you a disinterested advice.

uninterested

The word uninterested is an adjective and it is the opposite of interested. It means indifferent or not personally concerned in something.

Synonyms:

indifferent to, unconcerned with, incurious about, unenthusiastic about…

Examples:

  • He is uninterested in politics.
  • He was uninterested in helping us solve the problem.

A list of confused words

Disinterested vs. uninterested

Disinterested traditionally means having no stake in the matter. For example, when you are arguing with someone, you might bring in a disinterested third person to help settle the issue fairly. Uninterested traditionally means not engaged, bored, or unconcerned.

Many careful writers still observe the distinction between the words, and doing so is never wrong (and is probably the safer choice in more formal writing). But the reality is that disinterested has encroached on uninterested‘s territory and is now frequently used to mean not engaged, etc.

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This is understandable considering that the prefixes dis- and un- both mean not and that the traditional disinterested draws on a little-used sense of interested (i.e., having a stake in a given matter), but the change is also a little unfortunate because disinterested can be a useful word.

We can do without it if we must, though, as it has many synonyms, including impartial, neutral, unbiased, and objective, that can work in its place.

Examples

Disinterested is commonly used where uninterested would traditionally make more sense—for example:

  • Tens of thousands of volunteers, many of whom had been disinterested for much of the year, turned up at campaign offices over the weekend. [Guardian]
  • Ask any teens about their parents’ jobs and you’re bound to get some shrugged shoulders and thoroughly disinterested looks. [NBC News]
  • Fox Sports is convinced it can convert those AFL and NRL fans disinterested in cricket to continue their subscriptions over summer. [The Age]

But the change is not fully engrained, and the distinction between the two words is still sometimes observed—for example:

They are not uninterested in jobs and the economy, but they give the biggest cheers for same-sex marriage and ”don’t ask don’t tell”. [Sydney Morning Herald]

[His] numerous and mighty benefactions are seldom used to support an image of him as a model of disinterested philanthropy. [New York Times]

A scholar should read all the perspectives with as much detailed knowledge as can be mustered … and make every attempt to be disinterested. [Sinning in the Hebrew Bible, Alan F. Segal (2012)]

The Wall Street Journal reports that a whopping 59% of female respondents aged 16 to 19 said they were uninterested in or averse to sex. [Huffington Post]

We must admit, however, that we had trouble finding even a few examples of disinterested used in its old sense in 21st-century writing. Those who resist change to English might have to accept defeat on this one.

Disinterested vs. uninterested | Ask The Editor

  • Ask the Editor
  • Question
  • Disinterested vs. uninterested
  • Answer
  1. Yaoen from Singapore asked, “What's the difference between disinterested and uninterested?”
  2. Good question!
  3. The reason these two words are confusing is that disinterested has two meanings, and one of these meanings is the same or nearly the same as the meaning of uninterested – but the other meaning is different.
  4. Let's start with uninterested:
  5. Uninterested means not wanting to learn more about something or become involved in something, as in this example:
  • He seemed uninterested in our problems, so we stopped asking him for help. 

Disinterested can mean the same thing, and can be used in the same sentence:

  • He seemed disinterested in our problems, so we stopped asking him for help.

However, this is not the most common meaning of disinterested. More often, disinterested is used to mean impartial, or not influenced by personal feelings, opinions, or concerns, as in this example:

  • A disinterested third party resolved the dispute.

In addition, some teachers and writers object to the other use of disinterested (“not wanting to learn more…”) and even view it as an error. Therefore, in formal writing it's best to use disinterested to mean impartial, and uninterested to mean not wanting to learn more or get involved.

I hope this helps.

Disinterested vs. Uninterested—Are They the Same?

  • Disinterested means “without a vested interest.”
  • Uninterested means “not showing interest.”

The words disinterested and uninterested are sometimes used as if they have the same meaning. But there is a difference, and to avoid confusion, you should be aware of what that difference is.

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What Does Disinterested Mean?

When someone doesn’t have a vested interest in a matter, or doesn’t have a horse in that race, we can say that this person is disinterested. To be disinterested means to be impartial, which explains why this word, in its traditional sense, is often used in legal or business contexts:

Is the judge disinterested regarding this case or does she need to recuse herself?

  • However, writers sometimes use disinterested when uninterested would be more accurate:

He seemed disinterested in what was going on around him.

  1. But, to avoid confusion, it’s best to preserve the distinction between these two words.

What Does Uninterested Mean?

If someone is bored, doesn’t care about something, or isn’t showing an interest in something, we can use the word uninterested to describe them:

He seemed uninterested in what was going on around him.

Sheila was uninterested in learning math; she preferred social studies.

Examples

The directors who consider the bid must be disinterested and not receive a benefit from the transaction, and they must be governed by an overarching duty of care owed to the association.

Criticism, in this light, is neither a mode of revelation nor of disinterested judgment.

Unfortunately for City Hall’s exterminators, they also seemed totally uninterested in recently laid traps baited with poison.

But we’re comparatively uninterested in buying health and beauty products online, despite spending 18 percent more this November.

Word Choice: Disinterested vs. Uninterested

Here at Proofed, we see plenty of linguistic mix-ups. However, few cause more confusion than “disinterested” and “uninterested.” It’s easy to understand why these words sometimes baffle even native English speakers, as they’re alike in many ways.

Both are adjectives related to attention, for example, and the prefixes “dis-” and “un-” are sometimes used interchangeably. But “disinterested” and “uninterested” have importantly distinct meanings, so it’s vital to use them correctly in academic writing.

Disinterested (Objective)

The word “disinterested” implies freedom from bias and self-interest. When we want to take a neutral or objective attitude towards something, we would adopt a “disinterested approach”:

Although he cared about the environment, as a scientist, James knew he had to address climate change disinterestedly.

Uninterested (Bored)

The word “uninterested,” by comparison, means “indifferent” or “bored.” Thus, if we simply have no concern for something, we are “uninterested”:

Although Jane was a environmentalist, she was uninterested in the science behind climate change.

The Prefixes: Dis- and Un-

One way to remember the difference between these terms is to consider what the prefix at the beginning of each word means.

The prefix “dis-” implies separation (e.g., disconnected, disjointed). So being “disinterested” is an attempt to look past your own interests: a deliberate attempt to adopt a neutral attitude.

The prefix “un-” in this case implies a negation (e.g., unhappy, unknown). As such, being “uninterested” is the opposite of being interested: i.e., a lack of interest rather than a deliberate attempt to approach something without bias.

Disinterested or Uninterested?

  • As you can see, there’s a huge difference between the meanings of “disinterested” and “uninterested.” To make sure you use these terms correctly, remember the following:
  • Disinterested = Neutral or unbiased
  • Uninterested = Indifferent or bored

If you can remember this, you should avoid errors in your writing.

But since it’s easy to overlook these things, it never hurts to have a professional check your work. Try sending a 500-word sample to be proofread for free.

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