Word of the Month – December 2014

David Zapatka

The October Word of the Month article highlighting the difference between the words “historic” and “historical” sparked this question from reader Marilyn Conner. “What is the difference between ‘illegal’ and ‘unlawful’?”

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary the word illegal means not “allowed by law; not legal.” The word unlawful means “not lawful; illegal.” A second definition is “not morally right or conventional.” These appear to be very much the same. Are they synonymous? Interestingly enough the Merriam-Webster Dictionary does not list either as a synonym of the other.

So what’s the difference? There is a slight semantic difference between the two words, but no difference with regard to criminal punishment. It seems that something illegal is expressly proscribed by statute and something unlawful is just not expressly authorized.

Jaywalking is an unlawful act but not an illegal act. Traffic regulations do not typically say that you cannot walk diagonally through an intersection. Instead, traffic regulations normally provide that you can cross within a crosswalk when the walking-man icon appears. Crossing in any other way is unlawful because it is not expressly permitted.

Robbery is an illegal act. A federal law specifically provides that you may not do so. You can be punished for both unlawful and illegal acts so there doesn’t seem to be much difference in that respect.

Off on a tangential thought, the prefix un- (as in unlawful) is an English prefix. In- (as in injustice) is a Latin prefix. The prefix il- (as in illegal) is considered to be a form of the prefix in-. It works a little like how we choose the words “a” or “an” depending on whether the next word starts with a consonant or vowel sound. In this case, the prefix in- gets changed to il- when the word starts with the letter “l,” and it gets changed to im- when the word starts with the letter “p” or “b,” (as in impossible or imbalance).

This brings us back to the question I received from so many readers of the October Word of the Month column. Is it correct to say “an historic event” or “a historic event?”

A well-known grammar rule says we should use “an” before vowel sounds and “a” before consonant sounds; an accident, an item, an hour and a book, a hotel, a university. Following this rule, we would say a historic, not an historic because (for most speakers) historic doesn’t start with a vowel sound or does it? How do you pronounce this word and do you use “an” or “a” in front of it? Aren’t words and grammar interesting?

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