Unlawful Versus Illegal

Today’s topic is illegal versus unlawful.

Michael W. Flynn
3-minute read

Hello, and welcome to a special joint episode of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and Legal Lad’s Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life.

Grammar Girl here. 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.

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?