Difference Between Unlawful and Illegal

Difference Between Unlawful and Illegal

It is so easy to get confused with terms, especially in English. There are a million words to think of, thousands of rules to follow, and thousands of exemptions to those rules. But again, we can’t use that excuse as we can always do a quick Google search to clarify our confusions.

For example, if you’d like to know what the difference is between unlawful and illegal, you just have to type difference between unlawful and illegal or difference between illegal and unlawful, and you will get hundreds of results. Luckily, you have stumbled upon this article. In this article, we will discuss the characterizations of the two and provide you with a clear division between them, so please continue reading.

Definition of Unlawful

What does unlawful mean? To begin with, it is an adjective, which means it modifies or describes a noun or a pronoun. By separating the syllables of the word, you’ll get un- (which means not), law (which can mean a rule of conduct), and the suffix, -ful (which means ‘characterized by’). By putting everything together, the definition of unlawful is ‘not being characterized by the rule of conduct’.

Etymologically speaking, unlawful is derived from the Old English word unlagu, which means an abuse of law. Furthermore, unlawful means that something or someone’s action is not authorized by law. This means that an action is not clearly specified as legal. In the sentence, “Littering in the streets is unlawful,” the act of littering may not be permitted by law, but it may not also be categorized as a violating of the law.

The term has two different contexts. It can mean non-conformity or lack of authorization by the law. It can also be used to describe something or someone who does not meet the moral standard. Some of its synonyms are illegal and immoral. If the words discussed are synonyms, does this mean they are the same? It is imperative to note, though, that synonyms can have either the exact meaning or a similar meaning. To better understand which of these two applies, let’s take a look at the characterization of illegal.

Definition of Illegal

What does the term illegal imply? As unlawful, illegal is also an adjective that modifies a noun or a pronoun. By separating the syllables in this term, you’ll get the prefix -il (which means not) and legal (from or related to the law). By putting these two syllables together, the definition of illegal is ‘not from or related to the law’.

Etymologically, it is a term derived from the Latin word legalis which means pertaining to the law. Furthermore, illegal means that something or someone’s action is prohibited by law. In the sentence, “Wearing shabu is illegal,” the act of wearing shabu violates the law and may lead to penalties and/or jail time if proven guilty.

The word has two different contexts. It can mean that something or someone’s action is against the law. In sports, it means that an action performed is not in accordance with the rules. Its synonyms include unlawful and illicit. Since the words in question are both synonymous with each other, how can they be further differentiated?

Unlawful vs Illegal Comparison Table

Below is a table with the main differences of the terms in question.

Basis of ComparisonUnlawfulIllegal
Part of SpeechAdjectiveAdjective
Definitionnot authorized by lawforbidden by law
EtymologyOld EnglishLatin
ContextsLaw, MoralityLaw, Sports
DistinctionDoes not automatically mean that the law is brokenMeans that the law is definitely broken

Conclusion of the Main Difference Between Unlawful vs Illegal

The law is very specific, regardless if it’s about the constitution or sports. The difference between illegal and unlawful lies in whether or not the action in question resulted in a violation of the law. If an action is not considered ethically appropriate or if it is not explicitly and specifically defined as not legal, it is unlawful. If an action is classified to not be legal on the basis on the law, then it is considered illegal.

Hopefully, this reading was able to shed light on the distinction between these terms, so that the next time you’re asked what the difference is between unlawful vs illegal, you’ll know how to explain it. In any case, it is always a good choice to move away from unlawful activities and to avoid illegal acts.