The Difference: Uninterested vs. Disinterested (Adjectives)

Quick Summary

  • The word disinterested has two meanings:
    1. impartial or unbiased
    2. not interested
  • The word uninterested only means not interested

In short, both words can mean bored or indifferent (not interested), but only the word ‘disinterested’ can mean impartial or free from selfish motives. Because ‘disinterested’ has this meaning, it is often used in legal or political contexts. Here are some examples:

  • They hired a disinterested investigator to settle the dispute.
  • To get an objective answer, we need to first find a disinterested party.
  • The salesman’s offer sounded good, but Laura decided to first speak with a disinterested third party before making a decision.
A disinterested referee

A fair referee should be disinterested.

Based on the Corpora of Contemporary American English (COCA), the most common collocations (combinations of words used with disinterested) for this meaning are as follows:

A disinterested…

  • third party
  • observer
  • party
  • observer
  • spectator
  • inquiry

Disinterested and Uninterested Meaning Indifferent or Bored

Both of these words mean indifferent or bored (not interested). Here are some examples:

  • At the age of 8, Tina was disinterested/uninterested in boys.
  • I asked if she wanted to watch a movie, but she seemed disinterested/uninterested.
  • The student yawned disinterestedly/uninterestedly.

Why All the Confusion?

Based on Merriam Webster Dictionary, these two words used to have the opposite meanings of each other, which led to this confusion. Gradually, however, ‘disinterested’ has come to have the additional meaning of impartial, while uninterested only means not interested/indifferent.

My own analysis using the Corpora of Contemporary American English confirms that ‘disinterested’ is used as a synonym to ‘uninterested’ roughly 70% of the time. The other 30% of the cases, ‘disinterested’ is used to mean impartial or unbiased in a more legal or political context.

Do you think you understand the difference? Try these exercises.

Exercises: Disinterested vs. Interested

  1. Roger is  in studying. All he cares about is playing football.
  2. According to statements from a  observer, the accident was caused by a red car that did not stop at the traffic light.
  3. The insurance agent was not ; it seemed obvious that he would do anything to reject the client’s claim. Therefore, the case was taken to court, where a truly  judge could make a fair decision.
  4. Many young people are  in politics.
Show Answers & Explanation
  1. disinterested/uninterested (not interested, bored by, indifferent to)
  2. disinterested (impartial, not biased, without a selfish motive)
  3. disinterested (impartial, not biased, without a selfish motive), disinterested (impartial, not biased, without a selfish motive)
  4. disinterested/uninterested (not interested, bored by, indifferent to)

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