Know your words: Illegal

Posted on Wed 10 Aug 2011 @ 6.00am UTC

Previously, we have looked into the word of unlawful. Today, our focus will be on the word illegal and its related forms.

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illegal, illegally, illegality, illegalness

All these words basically mean something that is forbidden by law or statute. In other words, ‘against the law.’

The word illegal comes from the Mediaeval Latin illegalis, meaning ‘not legal’ (1620-30).

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illegal (adj)

The adjective illegal means:

  1. forbidden by law (or some other kind of rules or regulations)
  2. contrary to or unauthorised by law (or some other code of official or accepted rules)

The umpire ruled that it was an illegal forward pass.

An illegal contract.

An illegal dismissal.

Illegal is often confused with illicit (against accepted convention or morality).

Unlawful vs. illegal

Unlawful and illegal have very close meanings, and frequently get used interchangeably or get mixed up in use.

Dictionaries usually state that unlawful means ‘not permitted in law’ and illegal means ‘forbidden by law.’ That’s dynamite if you happen to know the difference between the two. But if you don’t, how do these sentences sound to you?

The sale of alcohol to minors is illegal/unlawful.

It is illegal/unlawful for minors to buy alcohol.

Those sentences are saying, it is against the law to sell alcohol to minors and against the law for minors to buy alcohol. How to describe this? Which word to use? The dictionaries don’t help us figure out how something that is not allowed by law (unlawful) is arguably also something forbidden by law (illegal).

The general rule of thumb is:

  • illegal if specifically banned by a specific statute, code, rule or regulation
  • unlawful if not justified by any general principle of law or right without actually breaking any specified rule

So, if there is a general principle in law or public policy not to sell alcohol to kids, then it would be correct to say:

The sale of alcohol to minors is unlawful.

But if Section 146(2) of the Licensing Act 2003 states “a person commits an offence if he sells alcohol to an individual aged under 18,” then it would be more correct to say:

Sale of alcohol to minors is illegal(Preferably with reference to that statute)

However, in most non-legal usage, the choice of using illegal vs. unlawful is often a matter of conventional usage even in the face of specified statutes:

an illegal seizure of property

an illegal block in football

an unlawful claim to the inheritance

to take unlawful advantage of the trading situation

the use of unlawful violence

They claimed the ban was unlawful.

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illegal (n)

The noun illegal chiefly means:

  • a person who has entered or attempted to enter a country illegally

In other words, a person who enters a country without going through proper entry procedures or even evades going through such procedures.

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illegally (adv)

more illegally (comparative), most illegally (superlative)

This adverb means in a manner or way that is forbidden by law:

The person entered this country illegally.

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illegality, illegalities (n)

Illegality is both a countable and an uncountable (mass) noun.

As an uncountable noun, it means illegal condition/quality, which basically means the same as unlawfulness. In other words, the state or condition of being illegal:

The illegality of the police actions forces us to rethink our policing policy.

As a countable noun, it means an illegal act (i.e. an act forbidden by law):

“Weinreb succeeds admirably in describing and analyzing Cuba’s silent majority, those ‘ordinary outlaws’ who are decent, hard-working, entrepreneurial, and ethical, yet must defend themselves and their survival through a myriad of economic illegalities within the framework of a dysfunctional economic system.”
Arch Ritter, ‘The Economist’ on Cuba’s Housing Market, 10 Feb 2011

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illegalness (n)

Illegalness is a very hard word to explain.

Most dictionaries unhelpfully define illegalness as a synonym (an alternative word having the same meaning) for illegality and unlawfulness.

However, illegalness is not quite that. Its very subtle meaning is not quite as fixed as illegality, but not so fluid as unlawfulness. Illegalness is perhaps somewhere in between the two.

Broadly speaking, you can take two routes:

  1. a general state of having characteristics of being illegal without indicating exactly what is being against the law
  2. a state of lacking in the qualities of being lawful or legal

In other words, the word suggests the appearance of illegality.

(In fact, English words that end in -ness often have this hard-to-explain quality about them: not quite but almost there.)

A picture might help here. This is a picture of a Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang congregating on their bikes:

Hell’s Angels is a worldwide motorcycle gang with a reputation as an organised crime syndicate. You’ve seen the movies: outlaw bikers dressed in matching gang ‘colours’ descend on a small town and terrorise the law-abiding citizens by disrupting smalltown life and traffic. Teenage girls get harassed, gentle men taunted, tempers flare, and the sheriff comes in to restore order.

Here, it’s simply a picture of a group of people with their customised motorbikes parked together (itself not an illegal act). However, because of the Hell’s Angels’ general reputation and the dress and demeanour of the people in this picture, we get a sense of illegalness about the people in the picture. Does that come through to you? No?

Aside: When I hear people describe bicyclists as bikers, I tell them “Please, they’re cyclists. Bikers are guys with leather jackets.” Don’t get this wrong, or you can get a punch in the face. Bikers are born wild.

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Find out why you should be careful when using the word illegitimate,
if you don’t want to be hit with a defamation lawsuit.

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Learn English or Starve, 2011.

Image: Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang congregating on their bikes before heading to Bakersfield, California, by Bill Ray for LIFE Magazine, via

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