Disinterested parties

Many writers and editors distinguish between disinterested and uninterested. To be disinterested means to be impartial, the Associated Press Stylebook says, or to be unbiased, the dictionary says.

In this sentence from a news story Tuesday:

Asked whether, as the prosecutor, he was disinterested in what the accused players had to say, Nifong responded curtly.

it appears to me the better choice would have been “uninterested,” as in having a lack of interest. Professor Paul Brians lists this as one of the Common Errors in English. [Bernstein and Bremner also write about the difference between the two words.]

But not every usage expert gets bent out of shape over the violation of this distinction. In fact, the dictionaries include as a second definition for disinterested uninterested or indifferent. The Mavens’ Word of the Day traces the history of disinterested and uninterested and finds that the two words switched meanings sometime since the 17th century and that the issue is not as clear-cut as some would have us believe.

A writer who wishes to keep the purists happy (and to follow AP style) will use disinterested to mean impartial and uninterested to mean indifferent or unconcerned.

Addendum: Bryan A. Garner writes that disinterested has a nuance that writers should remember. “A disinterested observer is not merely ‘impartial,’ but has nothing to gain from taking a stand on an issue.” It implies neutrality, not lack of concern.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.