Q&A: Uninterested or Disinterested?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're interested in “uninterested” vs “disinterested”…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a question that may or may not interest you.
A: What is it?
Q: It’s about the difference between “uninterested” and “disinterested”.
A: We see what you did there.
Q: Where?
A: Never mind. So let’s start by saying that both are real words. But we should probably first take a closer look at where the prefixes “un–” and “dis–” come from.
Q: I guess I should make myself comfortable.
A: Good idea. So “un–” is the older of the two, originally used for verb opposites like “do” and “undo” or “cover” and “uncover”. Fun fact – this prefix form was originally spelt “on–” but changed over time.
Q: That was a fun fact.
A: At the same time, “un–” also took on another job; this time providing opposites for adjectives. So we got words like “unhappy” or “unadventurous” or “unexciting”.
Q: “Un–” sure sounds like fun at parties… not.
A: Well actually, it can be. If you’re into “uninhibited” dancing, “unbridled” passion or “unlimited” entertainment. “Un–” knows how to have a good time.
Q: Fair enough. That was unnecessary and uncalled for.
A: Putting the “un” into “fun” since Old English times…
Q: Nice.
A: So anyway, a few centuries later, along comes “dis–” – one of a gazillion other French or Latin words that flooded into the English language during the Middle Ages, like shoppers in a department store on Boxing Day morning.
Q: I got a bullet blender for just $19 last year. Ahem, so what was “dis” there for?
A: Well, it’s related to the word “bis”, meaning “two”. Its job was to indicate separation.
Q: Like a linguistic family law specialist?
A: Something like that. So it gave us words such as “disengage” or “disable”. Many word forms had both “un–” and “dis–” prefixes, traditionally with separate meanings, but used interchangeably today.
Q: So “disinterested” and “uninterested” is one such example?
A: Well, many DO use both interchangeably these days to mean “bored, not interested, yawn” etc. But there is actually a wafer-thin distinction between the two, and it’s a good idea to know what it is.
Q: Do tell.
A: No one has a problem with “uninterested”, indicating as was always intended with “un–” prefixes – the opposite of interested. So if you are “uninterested”, you have no interest in the subject. It bores you.
Q: I must find where I put that bullet blender…
A: So, how does this differ from “disinterested”, you ask?
Q: I didn’t ask that.
A: Go on then.
Q: So, how does it differ from “disinterested” then?
A: Glad you asked. Traditionally, “disinterested” means that you have no stake in the subject matter – you are removed or separate from it. Impartial or unbiased. A judge must remain disinterested in court cases, or two people disputing a fact may call in a disinterested party to help resolve it.
Q: It seems like most people use “disinterested” interchangeably with the meaning of “uninterested” these days.
A: Yes, that is happening more and more. Here’s a quote we found in a newspaper: “Fox Sports is convinced it can convert those AFL and NRL fans disinterested in cricket to continue their subscriptions over summer…” In this situation, using “uninterested” or “not interested” would have been better.
Q: It’s a pretty fine distinction.
A: But the distinction remains, so it’s a good idea to use it in your writing. Another tip would be to use “unbiased” or “impartial” and avoid the word “disinterested” altogether.
Q: Good point. Now, help me hang up this pinata.
A: What’s that for?
Q: Well, we didn’t really discuss anything that makes for a good picture yet. So let’s use this pinata. It’s colourful and fun.
A: Fair enough. Maybe we could invite some people over and have a “disinterested party”…

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!

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