It’s safe to say that most of us don’t know the entire Declaration of Independence by heart. However, many of us are familiar enough with the document declaring independence from England to know that at one point, it gets into some inalienable rights that all Americans will have. Or was Thomas Jefferson writing about unalienable rights as he was putting quill to paper?
Although these words differ only by a single letter, are they synonyms that can be interchanged? Let’s take a closer look.
What does inalienable mean?
The adjective inalienable means something that “can’t be transferred to someone else, taken away, or denied.” This item, right, or principle isn’t alienable or “able to be sold.” For example: Americans consider freedom of speech an inalienable right although not all countries agree with this.
First recorded in 1610–20, this adjective originates from a combination of the prefix in- and alienable via the Middle French aliénable. Synonyms for inalienable include inviolable, absolute, unassailable, and inherent.
What does unalienable mean?
Unalienable is also an adjective that can be defined as “not transferable to another or not capable of being taken away or denied; inalienable.” For example, there are certain rights that American citizens are born with and these are unalienable.
Like inalienable, unalienable originates from the prefix un– and alienable via the Middle French aliénable and was first recorded in 1610–20. Synonyms for unalienable include built-in, constitutional, fundamental, and implicit.
Currently, inalienable is the more common spelling, but historically, that wasn’t always the case.
Most are familiar with unalienable after being introduced to it in history class while learning this specific passage from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The dominance of unalienable versus inalienable has changed over time as preference has evolved over the years.
Unalienable was the most popular choice until the 1830s when inalienable began to replace it. Now, inalienable is much more common with unalienable pretty much reserved for that famous proclamation.
How to use each word
Un- is a prefix that means “not” and gives a negative or opposite force. Although in- can mean “inclusion” (as in inland or indwelling), it can also be a synonym for un-, and is commonly used with nouns. Therefore, some words with the prefix in- can also mean a negative force, like inattention, inexpensive, or inorganic.
That means that inalienable and unalienable are synonyms that can be used interchangeably! The main difference is just historical context and popularity. As the English language has evolved, preferences for certain words and spellings shift, and that’s exactly what happened here. Although unalienable once dominated the scene, it has since taken a back seat to inalienable—but that doesn’t mean you’d be incorrect to use it.
For example: Despite his son’s protests, this dad had to explain that his allowance wasn’t an inalienable [or unalienable] right and that he had to work for it.
Or: After going over the will with countless lawyers, it became clear that the large sum of money left to her was unalienable [or inalienable] even as others tried to contest it.
And also: Although many would have viewed the ability to leave their home whenever they pleased as a required freedom, some were surprised to learn during coronavirus lockdowns and curfews that this isn’t an inalienable [or unalienable] right.
So go forth and speak using either one, as it is your inalienable right to do so.
We also believe it’s your unalienable right to learn about other commonly mixed-up words, no matter how ridiculous it seems … take ludicrous and ridiculous, for example!