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'Disinterested' Versus 'Uninterested'

"Disinterested" and "uninterested" have different meanings, but people are starting to confuse them. 

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
a bulldog looking uninterested and disinterested
The Quick And Dirty

An uninterested person is bored, unconcerned, or indifferent; and a disinterested person is impartial, unbiased, or has no stake in the outcome.

 

You want the referee of your game to be disinterested. You don’t want the referee to have a bet on the game. As another example, if you're on trial, you want a disinterested judge. 

Generally, unless you're a lawyer, the word you're looking for is "uninterested," but a quick news search shows that "disinterested" also frequently appears. Here's how to use these words according to the traditional rules:

  • Squiggly was uninterested in the Super Bowl. Instead, he was looking forward to the Puppy Bowl.
  • The ex-wife can hardly be considered a disinterested party in the estate sale.

Bryan Garner, author of Garner's Modern English Usage, says that many people have given up the fight to preserve the distinction between the two words, but he believes it is worth preserving. 

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The Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage editors note that their research shows a long history of overlapping use. “Uninterested” actually originally meant what “disinterested” is supposed to mean today, and the current distinction between the two only emerged with American usage writers in the late 1800s. Today, Merriam-Webster editors find that “disinterested” has taken on the additional meaning of "uninterested," but it doesn’t go the opposite way: “uninterested" is only rarely used to mean “disinterested." 

Garner’s research shows that, today, when people mean someone who has no interest in something — someone who’s just bored, for example — about half the time that person is described as “uninterested,” and about half the time that person is described as “disinterested.”

If you’d like to maintain the traditional distinction, remember that an uninterested person has no interest in something, and a disinterested person has no ethical conflicts in the situation at hand.

Image courtes of Shutterstock.

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.

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