de·​tain | \di-ˈtān, dē-\

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

Keep scrolling for more

Other Words from detain

detainment \-​mənt \ noun

Choose the Right Synonym for 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

Examples of detain in a Sentence

They were detained by the police for questioning. He claimed he had been illegally detained. Unexpected business had detained her.
See More

Recent Examples on the Web

The new suspect, James Ellingson, age 42, was released on bail earlier this month by a judge in British Columbia despite American efforts to keep him detained. Cyrus Farivar, Ars Technica, "Silk Road’s alleged hitman, “redandwhite,” arrested in Vancouver," 21 Nov. 2018 Mayes was arrested Monday, made an initial court appearance and was ordered detained until Thursday's hearing. Bruce Vielmetti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Milwaukee activist Vaun Mayes released from custody in Sherman Park firebomb plot," 5 July 2018 The apartment was stormed by police in riot gear and the group members were detained for a few days before authorities escorted them back to their hometowns. Yanan Wang, The Seattle Times, "Missing elite Chinese university alumni spark outcry," 14 Nov. 2018 The authorities, unsurprisingly, did not rally behind al-Sharif the way women did; she was detained twice and imprisoned for nine days. Michele Aboud, Glamour, "Saudi Arabia Was the Last Place in the World to Allow Women to Drive. Manal al-Sharif Helped Change That.," 5 Nov. 2018 What the military can legally do at the border US troops can’t detain, arrest, or search anyone at the border. Alex Ward, Vox, "The Pentagon is resisting Trump’s most controversial military requests for the border," 5 Nov. 2018 Seventeen people were allegedly involved in the burglary ring: seven were arrested earlier this week, one is detained, and the remaining are still at large. Dani Deahl, The Verge, "Seventeen charged in Apple theft ring that stole $1 million in merchandise," 28 Sep. 2018 There’s no official definition of a sanctuary city, but in general such municipalities do not allow their police departments to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, detain and deport immigrants. Travis Andersen,, "Sessions singles out ‘sanctuary city of Lawrence’ in N.H. opioid speech," 12 July 2018 That entails apprehending, detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants that the White House said has resulted in more than 127,000 arrests alone last year for people with criminal convictions. Phillip M. Bailey, The Courier-Journal, "Abolish ICE movement pits practicality against passion for local Democrats," 10 July 2018

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.

See More

First Known Use of detain

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for detain

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

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about detain

Statistics for detain

Last Updated

2 Dec 2018

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for detain

The first known use of detain was in the 15th century

See more words from the same century

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for detain



English Language Learners Definition of detain

: 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


de·​tain | \di-ˈtān \
detained; detaining

Kids Definition of detain

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.


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

Keep scrolling for more

More from Merriam-Webster on detain

Spanish Central: Translation of detain

Nglish: Translation of detain for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of detain for Arabic Speakers

Comments on detain

What made you want to look up detain? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


to make faulty or ineffective

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Late Autumn 2018 Words of the Day Quiz

  • frosted-autumn-leaves
  • Which is a synonym of yahoo?
True or False

Test your knowledge - and maybe learn something along the way.

Word Winder's CrossWinder

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.


Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!