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Inalienable vs. unalienable

English has changed since the founders of the United States used unalienable in the signed final draft of their 1776 Declaration of Independence (some earlier drafts and later copies have inalienable). Inalienable, which means exactly the same thing—both mean incapable of being transferred to another or othersis now the preferred form. Unalienable mainly appears in quotes of or references to the Declaration. Inalienable prevails everywhere else.

Although English usage rarely takes etymology into account, it’s worth noting that inalienable is truer to the word’s Latin and French roots, for what that’s worth. In- is a Latin negative prefix, and un- is an English one. While the founders’ Anglicized word remains an accepted variant, the more Latin form became more common around the beginning of the 19th century and has remained ascendant ever since.

This ngram, which graphs occurrence of the two forms in a large number of English-language books and periodicals published from 1700 to 2000, renders the history visually (note the large spike after 1776):


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Examples

Unalienable is usually used in reference to the Declaration of Independence and its arguments—for example:

Our nation was predicated on unalienable rights with governance through family, church and community, each rightfully sovereign within its sphere. [Forbes]

Mr Gingrich recurs constantly to the Declaration of Independence’s premise that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”. [Economist]

Why should the unalienable rights – among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – proudly celebrated by Americans on July 4 not be extended to humans everywhere? [Gulf Daily News]

And inalienable is used everywhere else—for example:

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Comments

  1. Grammarist says:

    Very interesting! We’ll look into this in our next revision of this post.

  2. 12centuries says:

    There is a startling difference between inalienable and unalienable. While Black’s Law dictionary does not currently suggest a difference between
    inalienable and unalienable, Black’s 2nd edition
    (and earlier) DID, in fact, mark a difference, way back in 1903.

    Inalienable: Not subject to alienation

    Unalienable: Incapable of being aliened

    The difference has profound implications: One “not subject” to losing their rights may eventually be subject to a loss of rights if laws or their legal status changes. But if one is deemed incapable of losing ones rights, then there is no legal method available for removing someone’s rights, which I think was clearly the founders’ intention.

    I don’t think anyone would like a government that could have the ability to remove one’s “God-given” rights, and the fact that the founders saw fit to explicitly include this viewpoint sets our rights as the highest pinnacle — one that even government is subject to, rather than vice versa.

  3. This article has it backwards. For heaven’s sake, “inalienable” was used in the Declaration, not “unalienable”, wherever you got that from. When I read this, I momentarily doubted my sanity as I believed this to be common knowledge for every American older than 7. Please fix!

    • Grammarist says:

      We’re sorry for your sanity, but you can see a full-size scan of the handwritten Declaration here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/07/Us_declaration_independence.jpg “Unalienable” is clearly visible, though as the commenter above notes, Jefferson is not responsible for that word. We still have to look into that and fix this post to reflect that. But in any case, “unalienable” is certainly the word used in the Declaration as most of us know it.

      • chuck1066 says:

        You can read in Benjamin Frankin’s journal that the only edit he made to the draft was to change UN to IN, as UN could be undone, and IN could not. Harry Houdini escaped from unescapable situations, but when he died, that was inescapable.

  4. Grammarist says:

    Replying again, 6 months later: Please see our response to Maggie below.

  5. Grammarist is incorrect. As others have argued, Jefferson used the word
    “Inalienable”. (I have a copy of an earlier version of the declaration in his handwriting.)

    • Grammarist says:

      We’ve now removed all mention of Jefferson from this post so that we can set this little controversy aside, since what’s relevant here is that “unalienable” is certainly the word used in the final and most well-known draft of the document.

  6. Grammarist says:

    Yes, there were many earlier drafts. All we’re saying here is that the final and most famous draft–the one signed by Congress–has “unalienable.”

    • Yeah, got that. I wasn’t saying you were wrong, but you have people telling you you are in error… so to EVERYONE, there is precedence for both, while the OFFICIAL version in UN. (For a fun version of this “debate” see the musical “1776.”

  7. since different version of the Declaration use “un” vs. “in” and it has been established that the words were not seen as entirely synonymous and interchangeable at the time, the question is why did Jefferson choose to use “inalienable” and why did Adams insist on changing it later?

  8. The unanimously signed document of The Declaration of Independance uses UNalienable.

  9. oregonrocks says:

    wrong, the final draft uses unalienable.

  10. woohooman says:

    The Declaration of Independence was a formal document firing King George III with an explanation of why he was being relieved of his job.

    There is one and only one Declaration of Independence document and it is signed by Congress.
    Other delineations, or outlines used in it’s creation cannot confuse the meaning of the official document .

    Benjamin Franklin, John Adams & Thomas Jefferson were all in agreement with the final document so it is incorrect to try and paint John Adams as some kind of rogue voice.

  11. woohooman says:

    Absolute nonsense trying to sell the idea that the two words have the same meaning.

    Inalienable: The use of inalienable means the individual believes in Hobb’s political theory and that each individual ought to contract away their rights to a single sovereign who can never be questioned or removed. Tyranny.

    Unalienable: The use of unalienable means the individual believes in Lockean political theory and that each individual in a society ought to contract with the government to protect their unalienable rights. The people are sovereign.

    • Right on!!! Lincoln did not save the Union by agreement between “…ought be free an independent states [nations]…He created the all powerful central government or the State: a Union by coercion. And, in so doing, he destroyed states’ rights and the idea of “…just powers deriving from the consent of the governed.” We need to Un-Lincoln America and reclaim UNalienable rights!!!

  12. Boy is this article wrong. Black’s Law Dictionary of 1910 – (you have to go back that far due to revisionist tampering) states that “unalienable” not only defines that our rights cannot be taken away or given up, but that it’s IMPOSSIBLE for them to be taken away or given up. There’s a big difference there. Unalienable – pronounced “UN-a-lein-able” Has quite a specific meaning, and it’s been all but lost on this generation – as evidenced by this article.

  13. georgesteele says:

    The difference was explained to me in college as a very significant one, which comports well with the notion that Newt Gingrich would have used unalienable. The memory device provided was that the i in in… counts for one upright meaning, whereas the u in un… counts for two – to help one remember the relative intensity of the inviolability in the meaning of each word. That is to say, an inalienable right is one that accrues to an individual, that no one can take away, and that may be violated or abridged only with the consent of the person possessed of such right. Privacy, for example. An unalienable right is one intrinsic to the human by nature (and nature’s God), such that not only may it not be taken away, but also that not even the possessor may give it away or agree to its abridgement – for example, one’s life, even by one’s own hand (in the traditional Judaeo-Christian sense that suicide is not permissible). I suspect that the change was intentionally introduced in the final document, since those who wrote it were men of letters and sensitive to nuance of meaning.

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