verb de·tain \ di-ˈtān , dē- \
Updated on: 19 Dec 2017

Definition of detain

transitive verb
1 : to hold or keep in or as if in custody
  • detained by the police for questioning
2 obsolete : to keep back (something due) : withhold
3 : to restrain especially from proceeding
  • was detained by a flat tire


play \-mənt\ noun

Examples of detain in a Sentence

  1. They were detained by the police for questioning.

  2. He claimed he had been illegally detained.

  3. Unexpected business had detained her.

Recent Examples of detain from the Web

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

Origin and Etymology of detain

Middle English deteynen, from Anglo-French deteign-, stem of detenir, modification of Latin detinēre, from de- + tenēre to hold — more at thin

Synonym Discussion of detain

keep, retain, detain, withhold, reserve mean to hold in one's possession or under one's control. keep may suggest a holding securely in one's possession, custody, or control.
    • keep this while I'm gone
retain implies continued keeping, especially against threatened seizure or forced loss.
    • managed to retain their dignity even in poverty
detain suggests a delay in letting go.
    • detained them for questioning
withhold implies restraint in letting go or a refusal to let go.
    • withheld information from the authorities
reserve suggests a keeping in store for future use.
    • reserve some of your energy for the last mile
delay, retard, slow, slacken, detain mean to cause to be late or behind in movement or progress. delay implies a holding back, usually by interference, from completion or arrival.
    • bad weather delayed our arrival
retard suggests reduction of speed without actual stopping.
    • language barriers retarded their progress
slow and slacken also imply a reduction of speed, slow often suggesting deliberate intention
    • medication slowed the patient's heart rate
, slacken an easing up or relaxing of power or effort.
    • on hot days runners slacken their pace
detain implies a holding back beyond a reasonable or appointed time.
    • unexpected business had detained her

DETAIN Defined for English Language Learners



Definition of detain for English Language Learners

  • : to officially prevent (someone) from leaving a place : to hold or keep (someone) in a prison or some other place

  • : to keep or prevent (someone) from leaving or arriving at the expected time

DETAIN Defined for Kids


verb de·tain \ di-ˈtān \

Definition of detain for Students

detained; detaining
1 : to hold or keep in or as if in prison
  • The suspect was detained by police.
2 : to stop from going on : delay
  • Snow detained our flight.

Law Dictionary


transitive verb de·tain

legal Definition of detain

1 : to hold or keep in custody or possession
  • property wrongfully detained
  • a juvenile detained in a care facility
2 : to restrain from proceeding
  • detained the driver and asked to see his license

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a eulogistic oration or writing

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