Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 40: A Topic of Interest

Our subject today is a pair of rather confusing words: uninterested and disinterested.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, the word uninterested means simply, "not interested." For example:
My friend invited me to the opening of a new restaurant, but frankly, I was uninterested.
The students in the class seemed uninterested in the discussion about Renaissance art.
As for the word disinterested, the Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines that word as "not influenced by personal feelings" or "impartial." Here are examples:
A good referee takes a disinterested approach to every game.
Readers trust the film critic for her disinterested way of writing reviews.
Not surprisingly, the Oxford Dictionary of Current English includes a usage note that warns speakers and writers not to confuse the words disinterested and uninterested.

That said, it's important to share something the research uncovered. Fowler's Modern English Usage points out that the word disinterested was used to mean "uninterested" back in the 17th and 18th centuries. That usage went into hibernation for a couple hundred years, but then it resurfaced in the 1970s—when of course, it met with resistance from grammarians.

Erroneous as it may be, there is some logic to it: The prefix dis- can mean not, as in disorganized. So it makes sense that people confuse disinterested and uninterested.

Nevertheless, Fowler's, just like the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, recommends restricting disinterested to mean "impartial" and uninterested to mean "not interested."

When possible, we on Grammar Grater like to provide tips or hints to help keep confusing words separated. We'll admit these hints are kind of silly, but anything goes in the world of mnemonics.
  • • Uninterested, which means "not interested," begins with U-N-I. Think of those as standing for "YoU Not Interested"
  • • Disinterested, meaning "impartial," begins with D-I-S. Think of those as meaning "Don't Involve Self"

Sources: Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield, and the Oxford Dictionary of Current English.

Music from this Episode: "The Book Lovers" by Broadcast; "The Short Answer" by Billy Bragg.

MPR News

Listen Now

Other Radio Streams from MPR

Classical MPR
Radio Heartland