At a long meeting? Maybe you’re bored. Maybe you’re tired. Maybe you’re totally disinterested in the topic?or are you?
Actually, you’re probably not disinterested at all.
There’s a big difference between being uninterested and being disinterested?so big that it can completely change the meaning of the sentence?and yet it’s one of the most common usage errors I see, and it pops up in everything from blogs to published books (and I’m talking about books published by major publishing houses, not self-publishers or even small presses). But it’s really quite simple to distinguish between the two words, and even simpler to use the one that fits the meaning you’re trying to convey.
An uninterested person is, like you’d expect, not interested in the topic; they don’t care about it, for example, or don’t have any desire to hear about it or discuss it.
A disinterested person, on the other hand, brings in the other, less common meaning of interested; they don’t have a personal stake, or interest, in the matter’s outcome. They may or may not be keen to hear about the topic, and they may even have an opinion, but because the outcome won’t affect them directly, they can hopefully respond in a more unbiased way than someone who does have a personal stake in the matter.
Because the two words (and their counterparts, disinterest and uninterest) are so often used interchangeably, isn’t this one of those word pair distinctions that needs to be put to rest? Perhaps not. Grammarian Bryan Garner, in his Garner’s Modern American Usage, points out that “disinterested captures a nuance that no other word quite does.” And, as these examples show, choosing between the two words can dramatically change a sentence’s meaning:
Example A: Sarah’s attitude toward the debate over student loan reimbursement was one of uninterest. Because uninterest is used, we know that Sarah was not interested in the details of the debate; she may have had student loans, so perhaps she should have been at least curious about the matter, but for whatever reason, she wasn’t.
Example B: Sarah’s attitude toward the debate over student loan reimbursement was one of disinterest. Because disinterest is used, we know that Sarah didn’t have a personal (e.g. in this case, probably financial) stake in the matter; perhaps she didn’t have student loans herself. She may or may not have been keen to hear about or comment on the debate, but at least we know that she didn’t stand to personally gain or lose depending on the debate’s outcome.
As you can also see from the above examples, it’s surprisingly simple to separate the two. Follow this general rule: Am I talking about someone having a personal stake in the outcome? If so, use disinterest or disinterested. Otherwise, if you’re implying lack of interest?and this is more common?use uninterest or uninterested.
Or remember this example instead. You may not want an uninterested person grading your next assignment or acting as a juror if you’re accused of a crime, but you’d most likely want a disinterested person serving in one of those roles.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.