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“Inalienable” or “unalienable”?

Q: When President Obama quoted from the Declaration of Independence in his Inaugural Address, he used the word “unalienable.” But I’ve also seen the word as “inalienable.” Which is correct English? Which is actually in the Declaration?

A: Both “inalienable” and “unalienable” are legitimate English words, and they have identical meanings.

The word in the final version of the Declaration of Independence is “unalienable,” though it’s “inalienable” in earlier versions of the document. Here’s the word in context:

“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.”

You can see an image of the final version on the National Archives page for the Declaration. Click “read transcript” to see a copy in ordinary print.

President Obama has used both words over the years. In his Inaugural Address on Jan 21, 2013, he referred to “unalienable rights,” but in remarks about gun violence on Jan 16, 2013, he used the phrase “inalienable rights.”

Although both words are correct, the one we see most often now is “inalienable.” And that’s the word some dictionaries seem to prefer.

For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has an entry for “inalienable” (defined as “incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred”). But under “unalienable,” the dictionary simply says it means “inalienable.” 

Many other Americans have puzzled over the years about which word is “correct” and which one actually appears in the Declaration. The nonprofit Independence Hall Association, based in Philadelphia, has a page devoted to this question on its website.

As you’ll see, the site has photocopies of the various drafts of the Declaration, some with “inalienable” (in Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting) and some with “unalienable” (in John Adams’s).

The website quotes a footnote from Carl Lotus Becker’s The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922):

“The Rough Draft reads ‘[inherent &] inalienable.’ There is no indication that Congress changed ‘inalienable’ to ‘unalienable’; but the latter form appears in the text in the rough Journal, in the corrected Journal, and in the parchment copy. John Adams, in making his copy of the Rough Draft, wrote ‘unalienable.’ Adams was one of the committee which supervised the printing of the text adopted by Congress, and it may have been at his suggestion that the change was made in printing. ‘Unalienable’ may have been the more customary form in the eighteenth century.”

As we said, both words are legitimate. They’ve been part of the language since the early 17th century.

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