The Grammarphobia Blog

Penalty kicks

Q: I’d like to say I got punished for what others did “impunitively” rather than “with impunity.” But I see no evidence that “impunitively” is a word. There’s “punitive,” which suggests that there could be “impunitive,” but I can’t find this either. Would using “impunitively” be misunderstandable? (And is “misunderstandable” a word?)

A: Yes, “impunitively” is a word, but it’s not seen very often and it doesn’t mean “with impunity.” So using it the way you suggest would be “misunderstandable” (a word seldom seen but unlikely to be misunderstood). Here’s the story.

English adapted the noun “impunity” (freedom from punishment) and the adjective “punitive” (inflicting punishment) from Latin in the 16th century.

We got “impunity” from the classical Latin impunitatem and “punitive” from the medieval Latin punitivus. The classical Latin verb punire means to punish.

Published references in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that he noun first showed up in a 1532 religious tract in which Thomas More refers to “the safegard of heretikes, and impunitie of all mischieuous people.”

The adjective appeared in a 1593 work in which the English ecclesiastical lawyer Richard Cosin writes of the “Processe punitiue, when the enquirie and examination is to punish the offender.”

The terms “impunitive” and “impunitively” are quite new, according to citations in the OED, not showing up in English until the 20th century.

The dictionary describes “impunitive” as a psychological term that means “adopting an attitude of resignation towards frustration; characterized by blaming neither oneself nor others unreasonably.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from Henry Alexander Murray’s book Explorations in Personality (1938), which says an accepting response to a disagreeable situation “may be termed ‘impunitive.’ ”

The dictionary defines “impunitively” as “in a way characteristic of an impunitive individual.” The first citation is from John Michael Argyle’s book Religious Behaviour   (1958): “The humanitarians on the other hand responded impunitively.”

Although all the published references in the OED for “impunitively” use the term in its psychological sense, a bit of googling suggests that some people do indeed use it the way you suggest doing.

We’d still recommend against using “impunitively” that way. As we’ve said, it’s likely to be “misunderstandable,” a word that the OED defines as “capable of being misunderstood.”

The OED’s earliest example is from an 1843 issue of Peter Parley’s Annual, a Christmas magazine for children: “The old mamma grunted and looked very misunderstandable through her grey eyes.”

Check out our books about the English language