il·​lit·​er·​ate (ˌ)i(l)-ˈli-t(ə-)rət How to pronounce illiterate (audio)
: having little or no education
especially : unable to read or write
an illiterate population
: showing or marked by a lack of acquaintance with the fundamentals of a particular field of knowledge
musically illiterate
: violating approved patterns of speaking or writing
: showing or marked by a lack of familiarity with language and literature
an illiterate magazine
illiterate noun
illiterately adverb
illiterateness noun

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Illiterate, Aliterate, and Innumerate

Illiterate may be used in both specific and general senses. When used specifically, it refers to the inability to read or write. In a more general sense, illiterate may signify a lack of familiarity with some body of knowledge (as in being "musically illiterate") or indicate a lack of competence in or familiarity with literature.

Illiteracy may be contrasted with aliteracy, which is “the quality or state of being able to read but uninterested in doing so.” And in case you were wondering, a person who is unable to understand or perform basic mathematics, as opposed to reading, is innumerate.

Choose the Right Synonym for illiterate

ignorant, illiterate, unlettered, untutored, unlearned mean not having knowledge.

ignorant may imply a general condition or it may apply to lack of knowledge or awareness of a particular thing.

an ignorant fool
ignorant of nuclear physics

illiterate applies to either an absolute or a relative inability to read and write.

much of the population is still illiterate

unlettered implies ignorance of the knowledge gained by reading.

an allusion meaningless to the unlettered

untutored may imply lack of schooling in the arts and ways of civilization.

strange monuments built by an untutored people

unlearned suggests ignorance of advanced subjects.

poetry not for academics but for the unlearned masses

Example Sentences

Constantine is listed in the 1870 census as illiterate; 10 years later, he had learned to read and write. And when, in 1906, the local "colored school" was slated for destruction, Constantine arranged to save it by having it moved to this property. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Wall Street Journal, 1 Feb. 2006 Martin is not illiterate but I think close to it. I never saw him read a newspaper, for instance. Hayden Carruth, Reluctantly, 1998 In a time when nearly everyone was illiterate, before newspapers, radio, and television, how could the religious and iconographic detail of these apparitions have been so similar? Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 1996 She didn't want anyone to know that she was illiterate. She is politically illiterate and has never voted in an election. He's illiterate when it comes to computers. See More
Recent Examples on the Web The novel is narrated by August Epp, a gentle schoolteacher and the only man trusted by the women, who are illiterate, to serve as the scribe of their meetings. Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker, 14 Nov. 2022 Not scoring in the proficient range does not mean students are illiterate. Detroit Free Press, 24 Oct. 2022 Kligman’s experiments were mostly conducted on Black men, many of whom were awaiting trial and saving money for bail, and many of whom were illiterate, according to the city. Melissa Noel, Essence, 10 Oct. 2022 The vast majority of Kligman's experiments were performed on Black men, many of whom were awaiting trial and trying to save money for bail, and many of whom were illiterate, the city said. CBS News, 7 Oct. 2022 Yet more than 74 million people in 2020 voted for a presidential candidate who was openly corrupt, thoughtless, and illiterate in matters of the U.S. Constitution. John R. Macarthur, Harper’s Magazine , 16 Sep. 2022 Many children are cursive-illiterate in their own language. Murr Brewster, The Christian Science Monitor, 16 Aug. 2022 Millions of people who graduated from communism illiterate in the ways of modern finance were sitting ducks for swindlers, who bankrolled political parties on the side. Tunku Varadarajan, WSJ, 4 Feb. 2022 Michele just joined TikTok and tipped her Fanny Brice hat to the persistent conspiracy theory that the ex-Glee star is illiterate. Lester Fabian Brathwaite,, 18 Sep. 2022 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'illiterate.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Word History


Middle English, from Latin illiteratus, from in- + litteratus literate

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of illiterate was in the 15th century

Dictionary Entries Near illiterate

Cite this Entry

“Illiterate.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 7 Dec. 2022.

Kids Definition


il·​lit·​er·​ate (ˈ)il-ˈ(l)it-ə-rət How to pronounce illiterate (audio)
: having little or no education
especially : unable to read or write
: showing lack of education
illiterate noun
illiterately adverb

More from Merriam-Webster on illiterate

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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