Commonly Confused Words: Inhuman and Inhumane

inhuman and inhumane
All hens should be allowed access to the great outdoors, says John Seymour. Not only is it inhumane to keep chickens indoors all the time, it leads to all the diseases that commercial flocks of poultry now suffer from. (f8 Imaging/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The adjectives inhuman and inhumane have related meanings, but they're not usually interchangeable.

Definitions

The word inhuman—like inhumane—means pitiless or lacking in compassion, but inhuman, which also means cruel, monstrous, and barbaric, has a harsher sense than inhumane.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines inhumane as "destitute of compassion for misery or suffering in men or animals." 

Examples

  • "For an instant Sean saw an inhuman expression of hate so evil and demented that nothing in the world could frighten the boy after seeing that."
    (Raymond Feist, Faerie Tale. Doubleday, 1988)
  • "In tormented English [Oskar] conveyed his intense and everlasting hatred of the Nazis for destroying his career, uprooting his life, and flinging him like a piece of bleeding meat to hawks. He cursed them thickly, the German nation, as an inhuman, conscienceless, merciless people." (Bernard Malamud, "The German Refugee." The Stories of Bernard Malamud. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989)
  • Inhumane treatment of political prisoners is considered a serious and punishable offense under international law.
  • "Some people always choose to comfort the child. They think that making a baby cry it out is inhumane and could even lead to psychological problems. Others feel that giving in to babies prevents them from learning needed skills and leads to later problems." (Aaron E. Carroll, "Putting Your Baby to Sleep: Some Advice and Good News." The New York Times, August 1, 2016)

Usage Notes

  • "Careful users maintain the distinction between inhuman and inhumane. Inhumane, the opposite of humane, means 'lacking in compassion or kindness; cruel; not merciful': inhumane treatment. Inhuman, the opposite of human, is stronger and has a wider scope than inhumane. To be inhuman means to lack all human qualities, not only compassion and kindness: inhuman violence, inhuman living conditions. Inhuman has the additional meaning of 'not having human form': An inhuman shape appeared at the window." (Martin Manser, Good Word Guide, 7th ed. Bloomsbury, 2011)
  • "The first thing to note about inhuman is that it does not mean the same as inhumane. The confusion is very common. On February 17, 2008, a fine op-ed piece by an Air Force Colonel and former Guantánamo prosecutor on the use of waterboarding was subbed by The New York Times with the internal headline 'Waterboarding Is Inhumane'—which is not what the author said in his article. He said it was inhuman. . . . According to the Oxford English Dictionary, inhumane in its modern use is 'a word of milder meaning than inhuman.'  Accordingly a prohibition on 'inhumane conduct' is much more demanding than a prohibition on 'inhuman conduct.'" (Jeremy Waldron, Torture, Terror, and Trade-Offs: Philosophy for the White House. Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • "Inhuman and inhumane overlap in meaning to such an extent that it is impossible to sustain a distinction in their use. In general, inhuman refers to the characteristic of a person or action, whereas inhumane considers the same characteristic rather more in relation to the effect or the consequences of the action on the sufferer." (Chambers 21 Century Dictionary, rev. ed. Chambers Harrap, 2001)

Practice

  • A great deal of irresponsibility, selfishness, and _____ behavior hides behind the pervasive myth that all cats are actually wild animals.
  • The rebel leader was accused of committing _____ acts of terrorism, which included the murdering and butchering of countless women and children.

Answers to Practice Exercises: Inhuman and Inhumane

(a) A great deal of irresponsibility, selfishness, and inhumane behavior hides behind the pervasive myth that all cats are actually wild animals.

(b) The rebel leader was accused of committing inhuman acts of terrorism, which included the murdering and butchering of countless women and children.

 

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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Nordquist, Richard. "Commonly Confused Words: Inhuman and Inhumane." ThoughtCo, Feb. 26, 2018, thoughtco.com/inhuman-and-inhumane-1689423. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, February 26). Commonly Confused Words: Inhuman and Inhumane. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/inhuman-and-inhumane-1689423 Nordquist, Richard. "Commonly Confused Words: Inhuman and Inhumane." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/inhuman-and-inhumane-1689423 (accessed May 21, 2018).