Uninterested vs disinterested – a battle for meaning

Introduction to pedantry

Disinterested in the dictionary

When it comes to English, I am not a die-hard prescriptivist – my father is, heaven help him – but certain mistakes irk me disproportionately. Examples include affect/effect, could care less, and etcetera being pronounced as though the first syllable were ‘eck’. To be fair, although they annoy me I am still willing to forgive, as I’m convinced that they stem less from laziness as from a lack of familiarity with the minutiae of the language.

Nonetheless, my irritation must have an outlet, so today’s post concerns one of those incredibly widespread and unkillable errors: the conflation of ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’.

Before we get into the details, I have a rule of thumb for success to share with you. If you are not sure which one to use, always use ‘uninterested’, and 90% of the time you will be correct. To a large extent, this is because ‘uninterested’ is one of the easiest ways to express the sentiment intended by the word, whereas ‘disinterested’ (used correctly) could easily be replaced with a better word. If that’s enough for you, great, otherwise keep reading for the definitions of the two words.

Meanings

‘Uninterested’ means ‘lacking an interest in something’, as in: he was completely uninterested in her justification.

‘Disinterested’ means ‘not influenced by considerations of personal advantage’ – i.e. impartial. As in: he was chosen as a judge as he was perceived to be disinterested in the case.

Two different meanings, expressing two different concepts.

Is all hope lost?

Unfortunately we are at the point where the two are so often interchanged that dictionaries have started to list ‘lacking an interest in something’ as a secondary definition for ‘disinterested’. Perhaps this battle therefore has a foregone conclusion, but I hope that you, gentle reader, will stand with me in defence of this (and other) useful distinctions in English.

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