Grammar

Inalienable or Unalienable? Which Human Rights Do We Claim?

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Consider one of our most important documents: the Declaration of Independence. Does it mention inalienable or unalienable human rights?

I heard a commercial for a university the other day that mentioned part of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. There’s a famous line about the Creator endowing us with a certain kind of human rights. But does the document say those rights are inalienable or unalienable?

The commercial said the rights were unalienable. I’ll be honest: The line jumped out at me. I wondered to myself how a college could pick the wrong word when quoting a document that important.

I distinctly remember the word was inalienable. Is “unalienable” even a word?

Granted, I don’t find an occasion to use either one very often at all. Most of the time, if I hear either, it’s directly related to the Declaration of Independence.

In fact, the only exception I can think of is a scene from the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, in which the character of Azetbur, daughter of Klingon Chancellor Gorkon, debates with Commander Pavel Chekov about the future of the Klingon empire if it becomes part of the United Federation of Planets. I’ll give you a snippet of their exchange:

CHEKOV: We do believe all planets have a sovereign claim to inalienable human rights.

AZETBUR: “Inalien. If you could only hear yourselves. “Human rights.” The very name is racist. The Federation is no more than a Homo sapiens-only club.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Well, surely Star Trek wouldn’t let me down, right? If they say it’s “inalienable,” then inalienable it must be.

I went to the official source for the answer

The National Archives‘ website has a page devoted to the Declaration of Independence. Right at the top, it lists what it calls the document’s preamble:

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 Declaration of Independence

Unalienable? I’d swear it was inalienable.

But it looks like that college commercial may have been correct.

Still, the next time I visit my folks, I’m going to dig up an old history textbook!

Inalienable or unalienable? What’s the difference?

The words look very similar, both in spelling and in apparent meaning. Both prefixes in- and un- are used to mean “not” something.

But is one answer more correct than the other? Merriam-Webster defines inalienable as “incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred.” It defines unalienable as “impossible to take away or give up; inalienable.”

So Merriam-Webster tells us the words are interchangeable.

Dictionary.com explains that while unalienable was more popular prior to the 1830s. That explains why that’s the word Thomas Jefferson chose for the Declaration of Independence. After the 1830s, inalienable overtook it. That might explain why I’m convinced I heard inalienable in history class. (My history classes happened well after the 1830s, in case you weren’t sure.)

Either word works, although now, inalienable seems to be the better choice, unless you’re quoting the Declaration of Independence itself!

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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