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ac·​ci·​den·​tal ˌak-sə-ˈden-tᵊl How to pronounce accidental (audio)
: occurring unexpectedly or by chance
an accidental discovery
Their meeting was purely accidental.
: happening without intent or through carelessness and often with unfortunate results
The death was ruled accidental.
: arising from extrinsic causes : incidental, nonessential
of a bird : appearing outside its normal geographic range, migration route, or season
accidentalness noun


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: a nonessential property
music : a note foreign to a key indicated by a signature
: a prefixed sign indicating an accidental
: a bird found outside its normal geographic range, migration route, or season : vagrant

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between accidental and incidental?

Accidental describes what was not planned or intended. It means "happening by accident" or "happening as an accident," as in "an accidental discovery" and "an accidental injury." Incidental typically means "happening as a minor part or result of something else," as in "a chapter that is incidental to the novel's plot." For more information read the full article.

Do you say 'on accident' or 'by accident'?

While both "by accident" and "on accident" are used, "by accident" is far more common.

What does 'accident waiting to happen' mean?

The phrase "an accident waiting to happen" refers to a person or thing that is dangerous or unsafe. For example, a very clumsy person and a rickety ladder might both be referred to as "an accident waiting to happen."

Choose the Right Synonym for accidental

accidental, fortuitous, casual, contingent mean not amenable to planning or prediction.

accidental stresses chance.

any resemblance to actual persons is entirely accidental

fortuitous so strongly suggests chance that it often connotes entire absence of cause.

a series of fortuitous events

casual stresses lack of real or apparent premeditation or intent.

a casual encounter with a stranger

contingent suggests possibility of happening but stresses uncertainty and dependence on other future events for existence or occurrence.

the contingent effects of the proposed law

Example Sentences

Adjective an accidental discovery of oil The timing of the announcement was purely accidental. The death was ruled accidental.
Recent Examples on the Web
The estrangement is not accidental: Sarah deliberately dodges the increasingly insistent calls from her mother’s caregivers, and unseen by Mia, pockets Joan’s birthday card to her granddaughter. Jessica Kiang, Variety, 20 Jan. 2023 In the midst of all of this, Nathaniel also begins to suspect that his death may not have been accidental. Will Harris,, 20 Jan. 2023 Kidman's father Antony died suddenly after an accidental fall in September 2014. Robin Raven, Peoplemag, 21 Dec. 2022 Carnival Cruise Lines said in a statement that an accidental fall into the water would be rare and physically challenging. Dennis Romero, NBC News, 26 Nov. 2022 Webb, 22, died on July 13 from an accidental fall from while climbing a cliff near Triangle Lake. Staff Reports, oregonlive, 22 Aug. 2022 Jurors rejected a defense argument that the injuries were the result of an accidental fall or suicide. Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times, 3 Aug. 2022 Instead, it was developed, with funding from the U.S. government, as a defense against a theoretical threat: the deliberate or accidental reintroduction of smallpox. Denise Roland, WSJ, 30 July 2022 During a postmortem examination, the coroner concluded that Kathleen had died from injuries that were consistent with blunt force trauma, not an accidental fall. Emma Dibdin, Town & Country, 4 June 2022
Authorities ultimately ruled the death accidental, noting that Jenkins was intoxicated and died of hypothermia, according to NBC New York affiliate WNBC. Char Adams, NBC News, 22 Nov. 2022 The Nevada County Sheriff's Office said in a statement the coroner ruled Rodni's death accidental. CBS News, 14 Oct. 2022 Lansbury was also determined that her own role as the author-cum-accidental detective Jessica Fletcher wasn’t warped by the sexist stereotypes that writers often fell back on. Holly Thomas, CNN, 14 Oct. 2022 Though authorities initially considered the death accidental, the ​​autopsy report later led investigators to believe that Kathleen died not after a fall but after being attacked. Kelsie Gibson,, 5 May 2022 The county sheriff ruled Rishell’s death accidental, and her family had remained close with Harold. Rachel Monroe, Outside Online, 16 Oct. 2018 After Saget's family shared their statement, the medical examiner also released their findings, ruling Saget's death accidental. Greta Bjornson,, 16 Feb. 2022 Of those, 15 were deemed justifiable and one accidental. Carol Robinson |, al, 6 Dec. 2021 Ocean City officials had stated that a medical examiner ruled O’Connor’s death accidental, caused by asphyxia due to suffocation., 26 May 2021 See More

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

Word History



Middle English, borrowed from Anglo-French accidentel, borrowed from Late Latin accidentālis, from Latin accident-, accidens accident + -ālis -al entry 1


Middle English, borrowed from Medieval Latin accidentālis, noun derivative of Late Latin accidentālis accidental entry 1

First Known Use


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 2


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of accidental was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near accidental

Cite this Entry

“Accidental.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 26 Jan. 2023.

Kids Definition


1 of 2 adjective
ac·​ci·​den·​tal ˌak-sə-ˈdent-ᵊl How to pronounce accidental (audio)
: happening unexpectedly or by chance
an accidental discovery of oil
: not happening or done on purpose
an accidental fall
-ˈdent-lē How to pronounce accidental (audio)


2 of 2 noun
: a musical note whose pitch is changed (as by a sharp or a flat) from the pitch shown in the key signature

More from Merriam-Webster on accidental

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