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I’m a little surprised that I’ve been blogging for almost five years now and never got around to talking about whether there’s a difference between the words disinterested and uninterested. I suppose I’ve avoided it because the matter has already been excellently discussed by many others, and I didn’t think I needed to add my voice to that choir. But now it’s become something of a glaring omission in my mind, so it’s time to fix that.

Let’s skip to the end and fill in the middle later: there is a difference, but in Mark Liberman’s words, it’s “emergent and incomplete, rather than traditional and under siege”. For some people, there’s a clean separation, for others an overlap. In the language in general, uninterested is limited to the “unconcerned” meaning, while disinterested can mean either “unconcerned” or “unbiased”.

How do two distinct meanings arise from such similar words? The problem lies at the root — namely, interest, which can be with (1a) or without (1b) bias:

(1a) I espouse a relatively dull orthodox Christianity and my interest in Buddhism is strictly cultural, aesthetic.
(1b) Upon consignment of your car, it’s in my interest to do everything possible to present your car to potential buyers.

So, when one adds a negative prefix to interest(ed), is it merely disavowing concern, or bias as well? I don’t know of any inherent difference between dis- and un- that would solve that question, and historically, no one else seemed to either. Though I don’t have relative usage statistics, the Oxford English Dictionary cites both forms with both meanings early in their history:

(2a) How dis-interested are they of all Worldly matters, since they fling their Wealth and Riches into the Sea. [c1677-1684]
(2b) The soul‥sits now as the most disinterested Arbiter, and impartial judge of her own works, that she can be. [1659]

(2c) He is no cold, uninterested, and uninteresting advocate for the cause he espouses. [1722]
(2d) What think you of uninterested Men, who value the Publick Good beyond their own private Interest? [1709]

But we both know that it’s no longer the 18th century, and I strongly suspect that you find (2d) to be a bit odd. The OED agrees, and marks this meaning (uninterested as “unbiased”) as obsolete. I looked over the first 50 examples of uninterested in COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) as well and found no examples like (2d). If it still exists, it’s rare or dialectal. Uninterested meaning “unconcerned” (2c) is, of course, alive and well.

So really, it’s not a question of whether people are confusing uninterested and disinterested, but rather a question of whether disinterested has two possible meanings. We’re certainly told that they are, and that it is imperative that disinterested be kept separate. For instance:

The constant misuse of disinterested for uninterested is breaking down a very useful distinction of meaning.”

Is it really? Suppose disinterested could just as easily take either meaning, and that this somehow rendered it unusable.* You’d still be able to use unbiased, impartial, objective, or unprejudiced for the one meaning, and indifferent, unconcerned, and uninterested for the other. We’re not losing this distinction at all.

Setting aside such misguided passion, let’s look at how disinterested actually is (and has been) used. As we saw in (2a) & (2b), disinterested started out being used for both meanings. This persisted, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), through the 19th century without complaint. Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary disinterestedly lists both senses, and it’s not until 1889 that MWDEU finds the first complaint. Opposition to disinterested for “unconcerned” appears to have steadily grown since then, especially in America.

But despite all the grousing, “unbiased” disinterested is hardly in dire straits. MWDEU’s searches found that 70% of all uses of disinterested in their files between 1934 and the 1980s were of this sense, and that this percentage actually increased during the 1980s. Furthermore, the MWDEU notes that the use of disinterested for “unconcerned” usually has a subtle difference from uninterested. Disinterested is often used to indicate that someone has lost interest as opposed to having been uninterested from the start.** This fits with other un-/dis- pairs, such as unarmed/disarmed.

Summary: Far from losing an existing distinction, it seems that we’re witnessing a distinction emerging. Uninterested is now restricted to an “unconcerned” meaning. Disinterested covers impartiality, but it also can take the “uninterested” meaning, often indicating specifically that interest has been lost. Because many people object to this sense of disinterested, you may want to avoid it if you’re uninterested in a fight. Will the distinction ever fully emerge, and the overlap be lost? Would that this desk were a time desk…


*: I think it goes without saying that having multiple meanings does not make a word unusable. In case it doesn’t, consider the much more confusing words fly, lead, and read.

**: Compare, for instance, I grew disinterested to I grew uninterested. I definitely prefer the former.

**: MWDEU notes that while the distributions of the two senses overlap, it’s more clear than people let on; “unbiased” disinterested tends to modify an abstract noun like love, whereas “unconcerned” disinterested tends to modify humans, and appear with in in tow.

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Let’s start off the S-Series with a bête noire of the grammar grousers: anyways. It’s also the one dearest to my heart, because it reminds me of a time when I was in the thrall of the grammarati. I don’t say anyways anymore, but I used to. It’s the same old story; someone heard me use it, and claimed it was wrong. Scared that I would be perceived as a rustic, ill-grammared Pittsburgher, I went to some source and looked it up. There I found advice like this:

The form “anyways” is found in some dialects in the United States, but it is not standard English, and it should never be used in any situation where you want to be considered reasonably well educated.

That’s all there is to it.”

And so, cowed by the authoritative tone and by the dire prognostication that I would be considered uneducated, I sheepishly dropped the s. The worst part about it is that despite all of my subsequent education, despite knowing that these people are just blowing smoke, despite knowing that they know nothing about language, I can’t get anyways to stop sounding strange to me now. I now use anyway almost exclusively.*

The truth is that although anyways has a bad reputation (even Urban Dictionary has its top definition of anyways claiming it’s a misuse), there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it.

The historical source of anyways is as the adverbial genitive of any way, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In this regard, anyways is analogous to always (genitive of all way(s)) or sometimes (genitive or plural of some time). The difference is that for the latter two words, the genitive version solidly beat out the bare form. Alway is basically gone from English now, and sometime lingers on as an adjective in only a limited, often literary, role (e.g., there is a blog titled Life and Times of a Sometime Poet).**

For whatever reason, in the battle between anyway and anyways, the script was flipped and the base form took the crown. Anyways was for a while just as common as anyway; Google Books shows the two staying pretty close up to around 1860, when anyway begins its rise. There are examples of famous authors using anyways even after this point, such as Joseph Conrad in 1902, but society had by and large turned its back on anyways.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage cites the Dictionary of American Regional English to note that anyways is apparently strongest in the South and South Midland (both U.S.) dialect regions. That would explain my usage of anyways from my South Midland youth.

So is anyways acceptable? One might make the argument that anyways carries an informal tone, which is a fair point as far as it goes. But it would be unfair to claim that that makes it substandard; not only are many informal words perfectly standard, but also the relevant competitor anyway is informal in many cases as well. In the conjunctive usage, both words lend an informal tone that would generally seem out of place in formal settings. (1a) is fine to me, but (1b) is distinctly off:

(1a) Anyway(s), Mom, here’s a letter explaining my expulsion.
(1b) ?Anyway(s), Your Highness, I bring a message from the governor.

Some usages of anyway fit in formal settings, like the adverbial usage in (2) from a 1997 article in Forbes:

(2) But if the Japanese banking system does not change, many banks will die anyway. [from COCA]

Personally, I wouldn’t use anyways here, but I’m not a good adjudicator here since I’ve already mostly lost anyways. That said, I probably wouldn’t use anyway here, either. I’d rather go with all the same, which strikes me as a formal usage than either of the anyway(s) options. Anyways, I’m going down a bit of a tangent. The point is that condemning anyways for informality is missing the point, when anyway isn’t especially formal itself. The point, to quote the MWDEU, is this:

“None of the senses of anyways are standard contemporary English, but you should not conclude that they are substandard”

And that’s all there is to it.

Summary: There’s nothing wrong with anyways; it’s merely nonstandard. But a lot of people consider it an indication of poor education, so you may want to be cautious about using it if you are beholden to other people’s opinions.

*: I did use anyways in one blog post, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see that.

**: Sometime, of course, remains standard for describing a non-specific time in the past, as in It happened sometime Tuesday morning, but this is not a meaning that sometimes is competing for.

The S-Series so far:
S-Series I: Anyway(s) [02/03/11]
S-Series II: Backward(s) [06/14/11]
S-Series III: Toward(s) [08/29/11]
S-Series IV: Beside(s) [12/07/11]

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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