Word Choice: Inalienable vs. Unalienable (An Independence Day Special)
  • 3-minute read
  • 4th July 2019

Word Choice: Inalienable vs. Unalienable (An Independence Day Special)

Happy Independence Day! To celebrate, we’re looking at a controversy related to the founding of the United States: the word “unalienable,” which appears in the Declaration of Independence. This isn’t a spelling we really use anymore, though, with “inalienable” much more common.

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So what is the difference? Why does the Declaration of Independence use “unalienable”? And when should you use each spelling?

The Meaning of Inalienable and Unalienable

First, let’s look at the difference in meaning between these words…

There isn’t one. Nada. Zilch. No difference at all. “Inalienable” and “unalienable” both mean “can’t be taken away.”

Some 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.

So whether we speak of “inalienable rights” or “unalienable rights,” we mean rights that can’t be denied. In practice, then, the only difference is that “inalienable” is now much more common.

Different Drafts, Different Spellings

So, why does the Declaration of Independence use “unalienable”?

Spelling variants were common at the time, and “unalienable” 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, “inalienable” has been the standard spelling.

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Unalienable vs. Inalienable
Unalienable vs. Inalienable

Oddly, though, this controversy could have been avoided. This is because the spelling “inalienable” appears in other drafts of the Declaration of Independence, including Thomas Jefferson’s original draft.

It was only when John Adams made a copy in his own handwriting that “unalienable” first appeared. And it was used in the final version, kick-starting a spelling debate that survives to the current day.

A Tale of Two Prefixes: Un- vs. In-

Why, then, has “inalienable” 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 “happy,” for example, is “unhappy.” And the opposite of “elegant” is “inelegant.”

The same is true with unalienable and inalienable. But the word “alien” 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 “alienable.” And since then it has stuck.

Or it has in most circumstances. Even these days, when people are writing about the Declaration of Independence, many prefer the spelling “unalienable.” So this mixture of a German prefix and a Latin word stem has a place in American English even today.

Summary: Inalienable or Unalienable?

As set out above, both of these words mean “can’t be taken away.” However, each spelling has its own place in modern English:

  • Inalienable is the standard spelling of this term in most contexts.
  • Unalienable is a rare variant of “inalienable,” but you can use it when quoting from or discussing the Declaration of Independence.

Hopefully, 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.

Comments (5)
James f Fairchild
8th July 2019 at 13:50
"They did not know what they were doing when they published the Declaration of Independence because they had never don't it before."
    Proofed
    8th July 2019 at 14:11
    I assume that last line should say "done" rather than "don't," but thanks for the comment! Is it a quote from someone in particular?
Raahkiim
27th January 2020 at 00:25
According to Black's Law Dictionary, Revised Fourth Edition, 1968 (West Publishing Co.), the term "Unalienable," on p. 1693, is specifically defined as "incapable of being aliened, that is, sold or transferred." Whereas "Inalienable," on p. 903, is specifically defined as referring to "those things which cannot be bought or sold or transferred from one person to another, such as rivers and public highways, and certain personal rights." So, indeed, there is a distinct difference between the terms. Therefore, the former (Unalienable) denotes the encompassing of all personal rights, whereas the latter (Inalienable) clearly refers to rights or matters which are granted or controlled by the States as well as the Federal government (i.e., "rivers and public highways" - including licensures to traverse each, respectively). Hard copies of the aforementioned Black's Law Dictionary are still available wherever books are sold.
    Proofed
    28th January 2020 at 08:49
    Thanks, Raahkim. There are many words with specialist definitions in certain areas (e.g. law).
TexMoCA
17th July 2020 at 01:42
Quote? Jesus said the first part of the Raahkim comment when He was being crucified. Only thing missing is Father forgive them. :>)

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