April 10, 2014

Weekly Language Usage Tips: dis or un

Posted in dis/un, disorganized/unorganized, dissatisfied/unsatisfied, uninterested or disinterested at 6:06 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:


Dis vs. un




The reader is quite succinct. She wants to know the difference between disorganized and unorganized, dissatisfied and unsatisfied, and disinterested and uninterested. I really wish I could give you one rule that will tell you when to use ‘dis’ and ‘un,’ but sadly, I cannot. They are both negative prefixes, but their meanings really depend on the words that follow them. If you look on the Internet, people keep trying to come up with rules, but for every rule I find, I can think of an exception. The result is that many folks have given up and use the prefixes synonymously. However, I think the distinctions are useful,  and it makes sense to keep the nuances. The problem is this: if you aren’t sure, you will have to rely on a dictionary (but, as I’ve told you before, please don’t rely on ‘yourdictionary.com’ which is more often wrong than right).

Let’s look at the words, the reader suggested, and see how they are different. First, there is ‘disorganized’ and ‘unorganized.’ “Disorganized’ refers to something that is out of order to the degree that it is messy or untidy. ‘Unorganized’ also refers to something that is out of order, but not necessarily something that is messy—just something that has not yet been organized.

His talk was so disorganized, the audience had a hard time discerning his point.

No one has put the books in order, and the office looks unorganized as a result.

Subtle distinction but still there.

Next, we have ‘dissatisfied’ and ‘unsatisfied.’ (We talked about this last June.) ‘Dissatisfied’ means not pleased or not happy with something. It has a stronger negative connotation than ‘unsatisfied’ which just means not sated or not fulfilled.

The teacher was dissatisfied with the class’s lack of interest in her lecture.

The gourmand was unsatisfied because of the tiny portions of food. (He may have been dissatisfied with the restaurant as well, but his belly was definitely not sated.)

Finally, there is ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested.’ (We first addressed this way back in 2009.) The distinction here, I think, is important. ‘Disinterested’ mean impartial, not biased. ‘Uninterested’ means, however, not concerned about something. See the difference?

The disinterested panelist has no axe to grind; she just wants to see the result.

The uninterested audience member finds the whole discussion boring as he has no interest in the topic at all.

That’s a distinction worth keeping! These particular words, by the way, are a subject of much contention among bloggers on the Internet.

So I wish I could give you a simple rule, but as we all know, the English language and the concept of simplicity just don’t get along.


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