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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with a passion. Learn More

“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:

John4 Sep-24-2008

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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.

Janet1 Sep-24-2008

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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!

Marcelo1 Oct-02-2008

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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."

David5 Oct-15-2008

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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.

porsche Oct-16-2008

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dis suggests an outright aversion

allen Oct-24-2008

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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.

jkerschner49 Nov-03-2008

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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.

porsche Nov-04-2008

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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.

Chesh. Nov-15-2008

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

Chesh. Nov-16-2008

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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.

David_M. Dec-05-2008

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

David_C. Dec-06-2008

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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.

anonymous4 Dec-06-2008

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anonymous4 Dec-06-2008

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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.

scyllacat Dec-16-2008

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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.

porsche Dec-17-2008

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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.

Joe4 Dec-27-2008

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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.

PedanticwordNazi Jan-31-2009

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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.

rue.burlingham Nov-09-2010

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I've always used these prefixes in the following fashion:

to un-/dis- (dependent on the verb) [the opposite action of _ ]

dis-ed [the negation of a state of being _ ]
un-ed [the lack of a state of being _ ][is not and never was in a state of being _ ]
-ed [the state of being _ ]

For example let's use "organize"

to dis-organize [the opposite action of organizing]

dis-organiz-ed [the negation of a state of being organized]
un-organiz-ed [the lack of a state of being organized][is not and never was in a state of being organized]
organiz-ed [the state of being organized]

Of course as in any language there are exceptions to this rule as well as words that don't fall into every category where we would use a different word instead: for example "dress" and "robe"

to un-dress [the opposite action of getting dressed]
to dis-robe [the opposite action of getting dressed]

dis-rob-ed [the negation of a state of being dressed]
un-dress-ed [the lack of a state of being dressed][is not and never was in a state of being dressed]
dress-ed [the state of being dressed]

handerso Apr-29-2014

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I really don't think there's any difference per se between un- and dis-, although with certain words they may have taken on separate meanings. Relatively few words take a dis- prefix, and most of those are hardly ever used with un-.

disloyal, disrespectful, discontented, disoriented, disobedient

Meanwhile no doubt thousands of words can take un-, or its variations in-, il- and im-, the vast majority of which are never used with dis-. Etymology might have something to do with it: un- is from Old English, dis- from Latin.

In the very few cases where there are pairs, I think you have take them individually rather than applying an overall principle.

dissatisfied / unsatisfied - here dis- is the simple negative, unsatisfied suggests what was hoped for wasn't achieved

disorganised / unorganised - they are very similar, but here it is un- that is a simple lack of organisation, while dis- implies criticism, of something perhaps rather chaotic.

The hot potato, of course, is disinterested and uninterested, and many people would agree with what Janet has said, and that is certainly how I'd use them. But it hasn't always been so; in fact originally it was just the opposite: this is from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

disinterested - "1610s, "unconcerned," the sense we now would ascribe to uninterested, with the sense of "impartial" going to disinteressed (c.1600). See dis- + interest. Modern sense of disinterested is first attested 1650s. As things now stand, disinterested means "free from personal bias," while uninterested means "caring nothing for the matter in question." Related: Disinterestedly; disinterestedness."

uninterested - 1640s, "unbiased," from un- (1) "not" + past participle of interest (v.). It later meant "disinterested" (1660s); sense of "unconcerned, indifferent" is recorded from 1771. This is the correct word for what often is miscalled disinterested.

Which confirms my suspicion that the difference between dis- and un- is due as much to fashion and collocation as any deep semantic difference.

Warsaw Will Apr-29-2014

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John-six years later (hence the delay in response) I'm reading this blog bc my 'smartphone' didn't recognize inopportune. I had to respond to your post because of your attempt to summarize the comparative meanings while using the following phrases. '"I dislike John." She/or "John is unlike anyone I've ever met." I certainly recognize them as describing John or a feeling about John but clearly the word like isn't used in the same context in both statements. Obviously the second 'like' wouldn't be defined as a feeling but rather an opinionated characteristic. I thi.nk that's why that particular word and context it was used in disintegrated the validity of your argument. That said, I struggled bw 'in,' 'un,' and maybe 'im.'I never considered 'dis'opportune. (Sorry for the repeat below but I'm on my phone and am unable to scroll down to dekete/edit or even read what I'm writing.
." I never i'opportune.' I think 'dis' means can be undeestood and used differently with different words and cintexts. Incmy humble rather uneducated opinion dis is used in the context of 'was once' or perhaps 'was once thought to be/could've been' whereas I think of 'un,' 'in,' and 'im' as just not.

leannanavy Jul-04-2014

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Then when we say 'in'hibit we are actually saying allowed or assists. But it's the opposite of prohibit. So my input would be to use the one that best conveys your message, of course while maintaing proper grammar! :)

leannanavy Jul-04-2014

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disinterested - connotes there was interest but no longer
uninterested - connotes there never was interest

disatisfied - connotes there was satisfaction but no longer
unsatisfied - connotes there never was satisfaction

disorganized - connotes there was organizacion but no longer
unorganized - connotes there never was organization

user106883 May-24-2018

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It is only a couple of weeks from 'Eliza Doolittle Day' (20 May)—which is dedicated to speaking and writing with proper English—and I stumbled upon this site. While some of the commenters on the site are not only well informed, but easy to understand. Others however, are a different story. For years I have said that English is dead. People completely disregard: spelling, proper word choice, grammar, and punctuation. Some even invent their own words, or new definitions for existing words when there is an already perfectly good word in existence that means exactly what they mean.

When it comes to dis- & un- as prefixes, 'Chesh' and 'Porsche' explained the differences best. The prefix dis- is the antithesis of the root word, while un- is the absence of the root word.

Example 1: The judge was a disinterested party in that he had no stake in the outcome of the trial. However, juror number six was uninterested in the entire proceeding, preferring to be at work.

Example 2: When Mary dropped her purse, its contents scattered across the floor in a disorganized mess. When the new base commander arrived, he immediately saw the unorganized mess that was his command and took immediate steps to correct the matter.

Example 3: George had a dislike for peanuts due to the allergic reaction they caused whenever he ate them. Marsha felt unliked by her parents because they never showed outward signs of affection such as, being hugged or told "I love you."

Example 4: The company had a disused facility that was awaiting sale or demolition. After the production run, there were some unused parts left over.

We have different words that have similar meanings, so that we can express different 'flavors' within the general meaning. If they truly meant the exact same thing, we would not have different words. As with anything in English, there are always a few exceptions. Always check a GOOD dictionary [OED, Collins, Webster's, etc.] for proper meanings and usages when in doubt. In fact, why not visit a physical dictionary regularly, flip through the pages and learn new words, or proper usages of words you thought you already knew. It is amazing the words you can learn.

rcdtex May-06-2019

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