The difference in meaning between disinterested and uninterested
prompts me to ask this question:
What is the difference in meaning between the negative prefixes dis-
Posted 23 July 2002
The Collins COBUILD (HaperCollins, 1995) has simple distinctions
for these two prefixes. The entry under dis- says:
" Dis-" is added to some words that describe processes, qualities,
or states, in order to form words describing the opposite processes, qualities,
or states. For example, if you do not agree with someone, you disagree
with them; if one thing is not similar to something else, it is dissimilar
The entry for un- says:<
“Un" is added to the beginning of adjectives, adverbs and nouns,
in order to form words that have the opposite meaning. My father was
an unemployed labourer…He had sensed his mother’s unhappiness?
The description of dis- above describes the case of disinterested,
which means that a person is not interested, is not involved, and probably
never was involved. Disinterested is often used to describe a person
who has no interest or involvement in a situation and therefore does not
stand to benefit from it, as in: <
" Un-" is added to the beginning of the past participle of a
verb, in order to form an adjective that means that the process described
by the verb has not happened. The theory remains untested…Dealers
across the country continue to complain about huge stocks of unsold
Gary would make a fine arbitrator for this case; he is completely impartial
Uninterested, on the other hand, means that the person is indifferent
or bored with the situation at hand: <
The conversion with Monique got boring very quickly ?she’s completely
uninterested in what we’re planning, and in anything else, for
A pair of words with the same kind of distinction as disinterested/uninterested
is dissatisfied and unsatisfied. Dissatisfied carries
the meaning that a person is discontented, as in "Harold is
discontented with his job." Unsatisfied means that
something is lacking, unfulfilled, or is yet to happen, as in "The
child’s hunger went unsatisfied for days."
These two combinations ?dis and un- ?both mean “not,?
or “the converse of.?Dis- combines freely with nouns verbs and
adjectives: disorder, disobey, dishonest, for example. Un-
combines freely with adjectives and participles: unfair, unassuming,
unexpected, unclear, for example.
Sometimes there is a difference in meaning, as in disinterested/uninterested
and in dissatisfied/unsatisfied. Sometimes, however, the word exists
with a particular prefix just because of the derivation of the base word.
For interesting insights and expansion on negative prefixes, see Quirk
et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Longman,
1985), pp.1540-41, and Huddleston and Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar
of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 1687-88.