Submitted by phyllis  •  September 24, 2008

“dis” vs “un”

Ok I am always coming up against the following with non-native speakers: disinterest vs uninterested dissatisfied vs unsatisfied disorganised vs unorganised

Any simple rule of thumb or guideline?

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English has 2 "un-" prefixes. One means "not" or "opposite", as in "unclean", "unsatisfied", and the other indicates a reverse of the action, as in "untie".

"dis" means "not", "absense of", "opposite of", "reverse". So the meanings are very similar. If you want to know what these words mean I suggest a good dictionary.

The supposed confusion between uninterested and disinterested doesn't exist, the situation is much more complicated than the peevologists like to think:

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Let me try.

DISinterested is "having no personal stake in the outcome." You want the judge at your trial to be DISinterested, that is, unbiased or neutral.
UNinterested is not interested, as in "that movie was totally UNinteresting, I was bored."

DISsatisfied is "unhappy with the situation or outcome." UNsatisfied is "incomplete" or "not full." If the meal is not spicy enough for me, I may be DISsatisfied with the chef's technique. If I am UNsatisfied, I didn't have enough to eat.

I personally use DISorganized and UNorganized interchangably.

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Hello everybody! I have just come across this site searching for some grounds for "in actuality". I did, thank you very much, and as I can't help myself, I am now having a peep around.
As a non-native speaker of English, born and bred in a country where it is only a foreign language, I must say I keep finding apparent dead-ends (not to mention my own students' awe and dread more often than not, but that's another story).
Further, most 'knowledgeable' people I know (i.e. teachers of English) won't notice a difference between, for example, INexperienced and UNexperienced. I'm most usually pulled in two directions in such cases: should I just let them be (who am I after all) and go on with their lives on mostly successful communicative interaction levels? Or should I be the pedant to always frown, take a deep breath, and play uncalled-for Mrs. Unblemished?
Well, just that. Basically, thanks for whetever you do, and the read!

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The other comments are very good.

I told my students that the short answer is one of degree. For the most part, the prefix "dis" can be read as "not very much," and the prefix "un" (for these words) can be read as "not at all."

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David, I think you got that backwards (it's also a bit of an oversimplification). In most cases, "dis" is stronger than "un", not the other way around.

It's a "fallacy of the excluded middle" sort of thing. Here's an example:

Let's consider love and hate. Let's assume for this discussion that they are polar opposites. Now, there's a middle ground, neither love or hate, let's say, indifference. Of course there can be a whole spectrum of feeling in between as well. If someone is "unloved" then that means "not loved". It does not mean "hated". Any feeling of indifference, or hate, or anything in that spectrum in between love and hate, anything less than love, is included in "unloved". Unloved is not the opposite of loved, it only means not loved.

Now let's compare "disliked" and "liked". "Disliked" does not mean "not liked". It is actually the polar opposite of "liked". If you are indifferent towards someone then you do not dislke them. You may not like them, but you don't dislike them either.

Un- is the equivalent of "not" which includes the middle ground. Dis- is "the opposite of" which does not include the middle ground. So, I would have to say that "dis", not "un", is the stronger degree of negation.

I also mentioned that this is an oversimplification. "Dis-" has several other definitions and both are used in a variety of contexts, so my comments may not apply in every case.

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dis suggests an outright aversion

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I agree with my namesake's description of disnterested and uninterested. Well stated. However a PERSON is disorganized, and THINGS are unorganized.

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In the past, I would have agreed with Janet and have often pointed out this misuse as one of my pet peeves. However, John's earlier post above is really quite compelling. I suggest you all read the link he posted. Clearly, the situation is more complex than we would like to think.

Personally, I still (correctly) use disinterested to mean unbiased and uninterested for, well, not interested. But now, I'm not so quick to criticize those who use disinterested to indicate a lack of interest, especially those who perhaps correctly mean an extreme lack of interest, "the opposite of" interested.

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I agree with most of the other comments here, but for me, when it comes to dis/un organized, the matter seems a little different.

That being, that if someone is disorganized, then its more a matter of their personality, and its not expected for them to be organized. However, if someone is unorganized, it seems more like a negating adjective. So an unorganized person is perhaps someone who started a project in an organized fashion, but due to whatever circumstances, because unorganized.

Similar to the word unhinged, though i dont know of 'dishinged' as a word.

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sorry, should read
'but due to whatever curcumstances, became unorganized'

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In traditional English usage, "dis" applies to nouns, "un" applies to verbs.

Thus, when I am "unsatisfied", I am in a state of "dissatisfaction". I cannot be "dissatisfied"; I can only be "unsatisfied". I think you can see the dis-tinction clearly here.

Of course, mine is only an historical perspective. Language is a constantly changing thing, so rules are constantly being broken and/or rewritten. However, this is how the two prefixes were originally meant to be used.

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Disorganised would be, like, chaos theory. Unorganized is complete randomness.

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David M, that is absolute rubbish. Noun or verb version has NOTHING to do with it. By the way, normally, you can't use dis- OR un- with nouns AT ALL! You can't say DIShouse or UNcar or DISrefrigerator or UNdishwasher. Actually, you nostly don't use them with verbs either. You use dis- or un- with participle adjectives. The ONLY reason the noun dissatisfaction is even a word is because DISSATISFIED is a word. Dissatisfied is a completely valid word. So is unsatisfied. They mean two different things. Everything in your post is 100%WRONG. Your perspective is not historical, it's just plain incorrect. The ONLY thing in your entire post that IS correct is the statement that language changes.

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Wow, this is a great question. Given the examples, I guess I tend to think of them as a way I think of as "mathematical," in which "un" =0. Uninterested, unloved, unfounded. Nothing happened there. The state of this being is NOT interested, not loved, or not founded. It hasn't changed, perhaps because the subject is UNfamiliar with the object.

DIS, however, seems to imply a vector, or change in state. If you are disenchanted, for example, disliked, or disemboweled, there's the sense of actively moving, or having moved away from enchantment, being liked, or having bowels.

It takes a little bit of willingness to "hold your mouth just right," but you can even think of "disinterested" that way, as in the above example, because the judge has to maintain an ACTIVE level of disinterest. It's something she has to do; she can't just take a nap.

Oh, right, one more: "Unorganized": No one has ever organized my bookshelves. They are unorganized.

"Disorganized": I dumped my purse on the floor in a desperate search for my keys. Now the contents are disorganized.

I haven't researched this, but it's how I keep them straight, and it seems to work.

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If I am unorganized, it means my desk is a bit messy at this particular moment. If I am disorganized, it means my desk is ALWAYS a bit messy. Note, this is consistent with what I have said above; un = not, dis = opposite of.

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I don't want to add any confusion, but consider the following:

like / unlike / dislike
loved / unloved / ??

"Joe is unlike [not like] anyone I've met."
"I dislike [do not like] Joe."
Unlike and dislike are different parts of speech...maybe there's a hint of validity to what David M said.

"Joe felt unloved [not loved]."
I've never heard, seen or read "disloved" anywhere.

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There is substance in most of these posts:
In most cases "dis" applies to "no longer", "un" applies to never was. The exceptions involve accepted words refined with general agreement in publication and use such as unlike or dislike, disrespect, etc. - proven words. , The major exception is their use in a factual or an emotional combination where their meaning are often opposite. Mis is also are at play here.
Un denotes a factual state as in "not" interested. (as in I though about it and I am not interested)
Dis denotes an emotional state as in "not" interested (as in I have not given it a thought)
Mis demotes a mistake as in he should not have been interested - Mistake is a proven word. Misinterest is not. Unpaid, but no mispaid or dispaid? Unpaid is a proven word. Disorganized means that it once was. Unorganized means that it never was. Miisorganized would mean that organization was attempted but not achieved, however it too is not an accepted word.

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Seems to me that in many cases the original word, without the un- or dis-, has multiple meanings. A judge's interest (or disinterest) in a court case is not the same as the interest (or lack of interest) to newspaper reader following the case.

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