Thursday, June 29, 2006

Why Are People So Uninterested in What Disinterested Means?

This is another one of those really fastidious distinctions, but I am annoyed that most people can't be bothered to use disinterested correctly. The primary definition of disinterested is "free of bias and self-interest; impartial," as in, "the decision should be made by a disinterested third party." But most people use disinterested when they should use uninterested, which means "not interested, indifferent," as in, "he is uninterested in his school work."

The reason behind this problem, I think, is that the noun disinsterest, which means "impartiality," sounds OK, while the noun uninterest sounds really dumb. People want a decent word meaning the opposite of interest in the sense of "His extreme and sudden interest in her is really creepy," and it somehow sounds silly to say, "His profound uninterest in her is really not surprising." It sounds better to say, "His profound disinterest in her is really not surprising"--better, that is, except for the fact that it's technically wrong.

At least, it's wrong right now. Someday, disinterest will come to mean uninterest, all the time, end of story. But that will probably be after I'm dead, and until then, I'm going to use the words correctly.

Read my other complaints about the misuse of language here and here.


Blogger Dale said...

I'm pretty sure I've committed this crime but will spend my next week of vacation going over the many brilliant things I've written to edit any evidence. I'm just that interested in disinterest.

I'm not sure if I even mentioned this cringeworthy item: Although I have always considered myself a champion speller, for years I thought the word was signifigant instead of significant. Oh, the shame. There are other atrocities I'm sure but this is revelation enough for one morning.

6:09 AM  
Blogger Bored Dominatrix said...

....will spend my next week of vacation going over the many brilliant things I've written to edit any evidence. I'm just that interested in disinterest.

I'm sure it will be worth your time, Dale.

I myself used to write "a hold" as one word, as in, "I will try to get ahold of you." As you say, oh, the shame.

7:04 AM  
Blogger C.L. Hanson said...

I haven't really heard this misuse of "disinterested" all that often. Maybe I'm not hanging out with the right people ;-) but I feel like it would be far more common to hear "his lack of interest" rather than "his uninterest" or "his disinterest" in your example sentence.

I'm okay with a lot of language evolution (please, please don't make me stop saying "hopefully" even if the popular usage of it is theoretically wrong -- I know and I don't care ;-) ). Still I think it would be a shame to lose the distinction between uninterested and disinterested.

Regarding your subject/object debate (linked above), I know how you feel about this weird thing of always switching to subject pronouns whenever they're grouped with "and" or "or". Some people only do it in first person (I've heard someone say "between him and I" in conversation...).

However I feel like there's a separate third category (which I will call "emphatic") which behaves a little differently.


"Who's there?"

Of course you can answer "I am", but are any of the following also correct? "me", "I", "It is I", "It's me".

My bias as a francophone is to see "je, me, moi" as kind of corresponding with "I, me, me." You don't say "je" by itself -- if the verb is understood but not present, you switch to "moi".

In English there seems to be a lot of confusion and debate on this point, and the comparison with French is relevant because I think the confusion is primarily caused by influence from French and Latin.

I touched on this and a few other sticky grammar/usage questions here: Grammar Police: Rules are meant to be, like, broken.

You don't have to agree with me, just note that there's a whole theory behind my unorthodox usage -- it's not just pure ignorance... ;-)

5:36 AM  
Blogger Bored Dominatrix said...

Hi Chanson--

Thanks for stopping by and adding to this conversation.

I minored in French (a million years ago before all my French was replaced by the Mandarin I learned on my mission) and have some familiarity with the fruits of the academie francaise.... And I also noticed very early in my study of French the logical correspondence between "c'est moi" and "it's me." The other day I got this horrible computerized phone call from my insurance. The voice asked for me, then said, "Is this she?" It sounded so pretentious I almost hung up then and there.

I agree with you that "lack of interest" is the most appropriate thing to say when one is trying to convey that someone uh, lacks interest, but I also reject the idea that what is technically correct should necessarily win out over what is economical. (An example follows below.) Hence I accept that people will look for one word (uninterest or disinterest) to express what currently takes three words to convey.

I accept--without resenting over much, I think--the fact that language will evolve. It's true, I cringe everytime someone says "nucular" for "nuclear," but I accept that some day, that will be an accepted pronuncation.

Re: some of the points you make in your grammar police piece--

I also bristle at the inane argument that swearing is a fucking sign of a goddamn small vocabulary.

A couple of rules I find ridiculous and refuse to keep myself are 1) the "don't end a sentence with a preposition" rule--I'll have to write a separate post on that, I think; and 2) the "don't split infinitives" rule. There's a legitimate and worthy distinction between "he really wanted to help his mother" and "he wanted to really help his mother," and I do not accept, as I was told as an undergrad by a historian of English, that instead of splitting that infinitive we should instead say, "he wanted to help his mother in a genuine and meaningful manner."

I'm for innovation, concision and clarity of meaning. And the disinterest/uninterest thing bugs me because it decreases rather than increases clarity; plus, like you, I think it would be a shame to lose the current primary meaning of "disinterest."

6:29 AM  
Blogger C.L. Hanson said...


Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put!!!

Hehe, okay sorry, I know that's an oldie... ;-)

But seriously I think we're basically on the same page here. I dislike the "no split infinitive" rule for the reason you cite and also because what kind of a trekkie would I be if I weren't allowed to boldly go places?!

Like you, I prefer clarity and simplicity. And while I think it's foolish to stand in the way of language evolution on principle, I'm not happy to see changes where nuance is lost instead of gained...

9:49 AM  
Blogger mellowlee said...

I remember the first time I came across the word disinterested. It was when I was applying for interest relief on my federal student loan.

The document stated "If you have low or no income, please have a "disinterested third party" submit a letter stating how you are living.

Ok, after a lifetime of hearing people misuse this word, I actually had to go look it up to be sure I understood. How bloody embarrassing

3:09 PM  

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