Our Real Grammar series showed how the evidence of language in use often undermines or contradicts the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people insist on.
In our new series on Real Vocabulary, with Scott Thornbury, we’re bringing you blog posts, videos and a quiz that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about vocabulary.
In the third question in our Real Vocabulary quiz, we asked whether it was acceptable to use the word disinterested (rather than uninterested) in the sentence:
Most people of that generation seem disinterested in politics.
In the Macmillan Dictionary (and in most contemporary dictionaries), the first meaning given for disinterested reads:
not involved in something and therefore able to judge it fairly: a disinterested witness and observer | disinterested advice
In contexts like these, disinterested is similar to impartial – the idea being that someone who is disinterested is in a good position to make an unbiased judgement about something, because they have no personal “interest” or stake in the outcome.
But disinterested has another meaning, where it is synonymous with uninterested, and the way it is used in our quiz sentence (“disinterested in politics”) clearly invokes this second meaning. So the question is whether it is acceptable to use disinterested to mean “not interested”.
The short answer is yes – but we need a longer answer because things are a little complicated. For well over a hundred years, traditionalists have insisted that disinterested can only mean “impartial or unbiased”, and that using it to mean “not interested” is simply wrong. Grammar Girl, for example, is in no doubt about this. She notes that “Disinterested is frequently misused by the media”, and then goes on to advise us about how to use it “properly” (in its “impartial” meaning). In its most recent (2013) survey, the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel criticised a sentence in which disinterested is used to mean “not interested”, with 86% of the Panel rejecting this usage.
So what can we learn from the word’s history, and from the evidence of how disinterested is used in current English speech and writing?
In his entry for disinterested, Dr. Johnson records both meanings (“impartial” and “uninterested”) without comment: for him, both are equally valid. That was in 1755. But going back even further, we find that disinterested is in fact an older word than uninterested. It first appeared in 1612, and it originally meant “not interested”. (A second meaning – “not influenced by interest; impartial” – begins to be used about 50 years later.) The word uninterested, conversely, originally meant impartial (its first recorded use was in 1646), and only acquired the sense of “not interested” a century or so later. So the situation was the complete reverse of what we find now.
Now on to the evidence of usage. The way the two meanings are distributed in text relates closely to whether disinterested is in predicative position (coming after the noun or pronoun it refers to) or whether it is used attributively. In predicative uses, disinterested mostly means “not interested”, for example when it is modified by adverbs such as completely or totally. When followed by “in” (disinterested in politics, for example) it almost always has the “not interested” meaning, and the pattern “disinterested in” accounts for nearly 20% of all uses of the adjective. On the other hand, a high percentage of uses (about 45%) show disinterested in attributive position, modifying nouns such as “observer”, “witness”, “spectator”, and “party” (in the legal sense of that word), and here it always means “impartial”. The overall picture is that the “impartial” meaning of disinterested is the dominant one, accounting for well over 70% of all uses. But that still leaves a healthy proportion of cases (like the example in our quiz) where disinterested means “not interested”.
The traditionalist case against using disinterested to mean “not interested” rests partly on the potential ambiguity of a word which has two quite different meanings: won’t people get confused, they argue, about which meaning the speaker intended? This is a rather weak argument: most common words in English have two or more meanings, and this rarely causes problems in normal communication. In almost every case, context resolves any uncertainty.
I looked at a sample of 100 instances of disinterested in our corpus, and couldn’t find a single one where the intended meaning was unclear. In most cases (as noted earlier), the syntactic structure guides you to the “right” meaning. But even the rare exceptions aren’t difficult to spot. Here are some cases where the pattern is attributive but the meaning is clearly “not interested” (rather than “impartial”):
The restaurant feels very amateurish, is lifeless inside and has disinterested staff.
My task was made more difficult by the totally disinterested response I encountered from certain officers of the city council.
The novelty of Speakers’ Corner is fast fading away, with few regular speakers and a sparse, disinterested crowd of listeners.
Here, and in general, it is easy enough to see how we should interpret the speaker’s meaning. The same applies to the “disinterested + in” pattern: it almost always points to the “uninterested” meaning, but the rare counter-examples are not difficult to identify:
Scientists may be disinterested in their search for knowledge, but their employers are not.
Our conclusion must be that both uses of disinterested are perfectly acceptable. Despite that, the Macmillan Dictionary’s second definition (“not interested”) includes a warning – which alerts users to the fact that some people see this use as wrong:
2. not interested. Many people think that this use of the word is not correct, and prefer to use uninterested.
And the data shows that, if you want to indicate that you’re not interested in something, it’s more natural to just to say “I’m not really/not very interested in that”, rather than using either disinterested or uninterested.
To learn more about Real Vocabulary, keep a close eye on our Real Vocabulary page. You can also follow this topic using #realvocabulary on Twitter, and remember that you can find all the blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realvocabulary”.Email this Post