Unlawful Versus Illegal

Today's topic is illegal versus unlawful.

Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read
Episode #68


Today’s topic is illegal versus unlawful.  Here's a question from Jed in Washington, D.C.

From my seat on the bus, I could see a big sign listing things that were "unlawful" to do on the bus (such as eat, listen to loud music, etc.)  I was curious if this word carried less force than illegal, even though they both seem to mean the same thing according to a few dictionaries that I checked.

Thanks Jed! I have some language-related comments, but I'm bringing in Legal Lad to answer the meat of your question.

What is the Difference Between Illegal and Unlawful?

Legal Lad:

Great question, Jed. The short answer is that there is a slight semantic difference between the two words, but no difference with regard to criminal punishment. 

Grammar Girl:

The prefixes il- and un- both mean the same thing—they mean not. So do both of these words mean not lawful?

Legal Lad:

Black’s Law Dictionary defines unlawful as not authorized by law, illegal. Illegal is defined as forbidden by law, unlawful. Semantically, there is a slight difference.  It seems that something illegal is expressly proscribed by statute, and something unlawful is just not expressly authorized.

Jaywalking is a good example of an unlawful act. Traffic regulations do not typically say that you cannot walk diagonally through an intersection. So, it is not illegal. Rather, traffic regulations typically provide that you can cross within a crosswalk when the little walky-man appears. Crossing in any other way is unlawful because it is not expressly permitted.

Selling cocaine is a good example of an illegal act. A federal law specifically provides that you may not do so.

With regard to Jed’s question, it would depend on point of view. On one hand, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, aka Metro, issued a rule that prohibits eating or drinking while riding on a public bus. So, the act is expressly proscribed, and thus illegal.

On the other hand, Metro is not a legislative body and does not pass laws in the traditional sense. Rather, it was a body created by an Interstate Compact in 1967. Part of the compact was that Metro could create rules to ensure safe and comfortable transportation for the public, and Metro used that authority to make a rule against eating or drinking. But, the compact, the actual law, does not say anything about food; it only says that the agency could create rules for safe travel. Thus, eating and drinking is simply not permitted, and thus unlawful.
Practically, there is no difference for punishment purposes. Both illegal and unlawful acts can get you into trouble.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.