Usage of Disinterested vs. uninterested


Both words seem to mean the following:

Having or feeling no interest in something or someone.

When do we use disinterested vs. uninterested? Are they interchangeable?


Posted 2014-02-10T15:03:05.327

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According to the dictionary, @damkerng-t is the correct answer, in spite of the controversy about it. – Metagrapher – 2014-02-25T19:51:38.420



The two words are used very differently in standard English. Both mean that the person or thing being spoken of has no interest. However, the word interest has two different but related meanings. (There's also monetary interest, which is basically rent paid for use of money, but that's not relevant to the question.)

In one sense, interest means that which appeals to a person, or that which they enjoy. Uninterested would therefore be used to mean that someone is bored or apathetic:

He was entirely uninterested in conversation, instead burying his head in the newspaper for the entirety of the meal.

The dog was completely uninterested in eating due to the sickness.

A person who does not enjoy watching sports could be correctly described as "uninterested in sports".

The second meaning for interest is "to have a stake in", or "in some way to have one's life be affected by an outcome". Someone who places a wager on the outcome of a football match has an interest in the result.

Because such interest can be problematic, a trusted person who doesn't have any reason to care about an outcome is said to be disinterested. Think of a referee at a sporting event, or an attorney who helps draw up a contract. These people get paid regardless of the outcome. They may not be personally uninterested in what happens, but they are professionally disinterested because that is what they are paid for.

When encountering an accident scene, a police officer acts as a disinterested party to ensure that everything is done correctly and fairly.

One of an attorney's responsibilities is to act as a disinterested third party to agreements, ensuring that terms are clearly laid out, and that responsibilities are met.

As Eric Lippert comments, disinterested is sometimes used in a context where uninterested would be more appropriate. This isn't out of any sense of correctness, but merely comes from the modern trend of picking a word that sounds right without bothering to find out whether it actually fits. (In the same way that infer is often used where imply would be more correct.) Thus, a usage like this might be understood, but should be avoided:

[This is mostly wrong] He was entirely disinterested in learning to drive safely, preferring to leave a trail of accidents behind him.

Jonathan Garber

Posted 2014-02-10T15:03:05.327

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3I would note also that it is common for native speakers of English to use "disinterested" when they mean mean "uninterested"; I see it all the time. The opposite situation -- using "uninterested" to mean "not personally having a stake in the outcome" seems uncommon. – Eric Lippert – 2014-02-10T17:00:08.660

1@EricLippert: Thank you for reminding me. Updated. These creeping homogenizations annoy me because "there's already a perfectly good word for that". – Jonathan Garber – 2014-02-11T15:11:05.633

This is incorrect. According to both Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries, "disinterested" also means "having or feeling no interest in something: her father was so disinterested in her progress that he only visited the school once" – Metagrapher – 2014-02-25T19:48:13.523


Macmillan Dictionary gives two senses for the definition of "disinterested". The second one is "not interested", with a note "Many people think that this use of the word is not correct, and prefer to use uninterested." ("Uninterested" is simply defined as "not interested".)

The following is the full definition:


  1. not involved in something and therefore able to judge it fairly
    a disinterested witness and observer
    disinterested advice

  2. not interested. Many people think that this use of the word is not correct, and prefer to use uninterested.

Damkerng T.

Posted 2014-02-10T15:03:05.327

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