Happy Independence Day! To celebrate, we\u2019re looking at a controversy related to the founding of the United States: the word \u201cunalienable,\u201d which appears in the Declaration of Independence. This isn\u2019t a spelling we really use anymore, though, with \u201cinalienable\u201d much more common.\r\n\r\nSo what is the difference? Why does the Declaration of Independence use \u201cunalienable\u201d? And when should you use each spelling?\r\nThe Meaning of Inalienable and Unalienable\r\nFirst, let\u2019s look at the difference in meaning between these words...\r\nThere isn\u2019t one. Nada. Zilch. No difference at all. \u201cInalienable\u201d and \u201cunalienable\u201d both mean \u201ccan\u2019t be taken away.\u201d\r\nSome older dictionaries may suggest a slight difference (e.g., the legal distinction between a right that cannot be taken under any circumstances and one that can only be taken with consent). But this is quite old-fashioned and certainly not an issue when we use these terms in everyday language.\r\nSo whether we speak of \u201cinalienable rights\u201d or \u201cunalienable rights,\u201d we mean rights that can\u2019t be denied. In practice, then, the only difference is that \u201cinalienable\u201d is now much more common.\r\nDifferent Drafts, Different Spellings\r\nSo, why does the Declaration of Independence use \u201cunalienable\u201d?\r\nSpelling variants were common at the time, and \u201cunalienable\u201d was the most common version of this term. It also enjoyed a spike in popularity after the Declaration of Independence was signed. But since the mid-nineteenth century, \u201cinalienable\u201d has been the standard spelling.\r\n\r\n[caption id="attachment_13799" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Unalienable vs. Inalienable[\/caption]\r\n\r\nOddly, though, this controversy could have been avoided. This is because the spelling \u201cinalienable\u201d appears in other drafts of the Declaration of Independence, including Thomas Jefferson\u2019s original draft.\r\nIt was only when John Adams made a copy in his own handwriting that \u201cunalienable\u201d first appeared. And it was used in the final version, kick-starting a spelling debate that survives to the current day.\r\nA Tale of Two Prefixes: Un- vs. In-\r\nWhy, then, has \u201cinalienable\u201d won out? In terms of meaning, the prefixes un- and in- are both negations. As such, they go before a word to cancel it out or suggest its opposite. The opposite of \u201chappy,\u201d for example, is \u201cunhappy.\u201d And the opposite of \u201celegant\u201d is \u201cinelegant.\u201d\r\nThe same is true with unalienable and inalienable. But the word \u201calien\u201d comes to us from Latin. And while the prefix in- also has Latin roots, un- comes from German. Nineteenth-century linguists therefore decided than in- was the better prefix for \u201calienable.\u201d And since then it has stuck.\r\nOr it has in most circumstances. Even these days, when people are writing about the Declaration of Independence, many prefer the spelling \u201cunalienable.\u201d So this mixture of a German prefix and a Latin word stem has a place in American English even today.\r\nSummary: Inalienable or Unalienable?\r\nAs set out above, both of these words mean \u201ccan\u2019t be taken away.\u201d However, each spelling has its own place in modern English:\r\n\r\n\tInalienable is the standard spelling of this term in most contexts.\r\n\tUnalienable is a rare variant of \u201cinalienable,\u201d but you can use it when quoting from or discussing the Declaration of Independence.\r\n\r\nHopefully, this has settled some of your Independence Day spelling questions. But if you need any more help with your writing, feel free to send us a document for proofreading today.