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Borrowed around 1645 from French inaliénable, from in- +‎ aliénable (alienable).[1]


  • (UK) IPA(key): /ɪˈneɪ.lɪ.ə.nə.bəl/
  • (US) IPA(key): /ɪˈneɪ.li.ə.nə.bəl/


inalienable (not comparable)

  1. Incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred to another; not alienable.
    inalienable right a right that cannot be given away
  2. (grammar) Of or pertaining to a noun belonging to a special class in which the possessive construction differs from the norm, especially for particular familial relationships and body parts.

Usage notes[edit]

While inalienable and unalienable are today used interchangeably with inalienable more common, the terms have historically sometimes been distinguished.[2]

Regarding current usage being interchangeable:[3]

The unalienable rights that are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence could just as well have been inalienable, which means the same thing. Inalienable or unalienable refers to that which cannot be given away or taken away. However, the Founders used the word "unalienable" as defined by William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1:93, when he defined unalienable rights as: "Those rights, then, which God and nature have established, and therefore called natural rights, such as life and liberty, need not the aid of human laws to be more effectually invested in every man than they are; neither do they receive any additional strength when declared by the municipal laws to be inviolable. On the contrary, no human legislature has power to abridge or destroy them, unless the owner shall himself commit some act that amounts to a forfeiture." other words a person may do something to forfeit their unalienable rights...for instance the unalienable right to freedom which can be forfeited by the commission of a crime for which they may be punished by their loss of freedom. However, once they are freed after serving their punishment their right is restored.

In legal usage, Black’s 2004 defines inalienable as:[4]

Not transferable or assignable. . . . Also termed unalienable.

In earlier legal usage the terms were distinguished, but not explicitly contrasted. Black’s 1910 defines inalienable as:[5]

Not subject to alienation; the characteristic of 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; e.g., liberty.

while it defines unalienable as:

Incapable of being aliened, that is, sold and transferred.

Bouvier’s Law Dictionary (1856) defines the terms as follows:

INALIENABLE. A word denoting the condition of those things the property in which cannot be lawfully transferred from one person to another. Public highways and rivers are inalienable. There are also many rights which are inalienable, as the rights of liberty or of speech.
UNALIENABLE. Incapable of being transferred. Things which are not in commerce, as, public roads, are in their nature unalienable. Some things are unalienable in consequence of particular provisions of the law forbidding their sale or transfer; as, pensions granted by the government. The natural rights of life and liberty are unalienable.

It is noteworthy that while Bouvier’s draws a distinction between the terms, it uses much the same examples (public roads, the right to liberty) for both, and does not specifically contrast them, nor is an example given of a thing that is one but not the other.

If there was a historical difference, it does not appear to be clear from the literature, and any such difference is now effaced.

Some authors draw a fine distinction, with unalienable being stronger and absolute, while (in this usage) inalienable is weaker and conditional. This draws on a more recent definition, given by the Missouri Court of Appeals, 1952:

Inalienable Rights: Rights which are not capable of being surrendered or transferred without the consent of the one possessing such rights.[6]

The distinction is most often discussed, if at all, in the context of the Declaration of Independence, which uses the now less-common unalienable, but which is today frequently quoted using the now more-common inalienable, as in the 1997 film Amistad. Further, some drafts used inalienable, notably the draft by Thomas Jefferson.[7] Most authorities consider this an insignificant stylistic difference,[3][7] though some consider this a significant distinction.[2]





  1. ^ inalienable” in Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Online
  2. 2.0 2.1 “Unalienable” vs. “Inalienable”, Alfred Adask, Adask’s law, July 15, 2009, 3:56 PM
  3. 3.0 3.1 The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, Houghton Mifflin Company
  4. ^ Black’s Law Dictionary (8th Edition, 2004)
  5. ^ Black’s Law Dictionary (2nd Edition, 1910)
  6. ^ Morrison v. State, (Mo. App. 1952), 252 S.W.2d 97, 101
  7. 7.0 7.1 Unalienable / Inalienable