Why ‘disinterested’ is never confusing

The usage website Daily Writing Tips says:

‘The constant misuse of ‘disinterested’ for ‘uninterested’ is breaking down a very useful distinction of meaning’.

Traditionally, the adjective ‘disinterested’ describes someone who isn’t directly involved in something, and is therefore unlikely to be influenced by questions of personal advantage. It is similar to the word ‘impartial’. However, corpus evidence shows that many writers and speakers also use this word simply to mean ‘not interested’. Some language pundits (Daily Writing Tips, and many others) deplore this second meaning, and see it as a recipe for confusion: how will a reader know which of the two meanings the writer intends?

But this is an irrational argument: most common words have more than one meaning, and – as we have seen – this doesn’t usually cause problems of communication. In this case, the data shows that the confusion which pedants warn about almost never happens in real life.

Your task

Here is a random extract of 10 sentences from a concordance for ‘disinterested’. Is it easy to tell which meaning is intended in each sentence? Or are there any cases where you found it hard to be sure?

  1. Unlike his normal character, he appeared to become apathetic and disinterested in life.

  2. From the earliest times it is clear that such apparently disinterested help for the poor served other purposes.

  3. And – ideally – science is utterly disinterested and impartial in its mode of investigation and its findings.

  4. The restaurant feels very amateurish, is lifeless inside and the staff seem disinterested.

  5. My task was made more difficult by the totally disinterested response I encountered from certain officers of the city council.

  6. Like the Count, he is a disinterested observer, caught up in a war about which he cares little.

  7. The successful anthologist has to be balanced and disinterested, a champion of quality over personality.

  8. Genial to a fault, almost completely disinterested in self-examination, Reagan had spent all of his adulthood acting in movies.

  9. I dislike the (commonly held) assumption that if your children attend school, then you’re disinterested in their education.

  10. The matter is settled between friends or sent to an arbitration panel made up of ‘disinterested parties’ from member companies.

Further reading and viewing

If you would like to learn more about ‘disinterested’, and the debate about its usage, there is a post on the subject on the Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Understanding English Dictionaries

Coventry University