verb de·tain \di-ˈtān, dē-\

Definition of detain

  1. transitive verb
  2. 1 :  to hold or keep in or as if in custody <detained by the police for questioning>

  3. 2 obsolete :  to keep back (as something due) :  withhold

  4. 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.

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

First Known Use: 15th century

Synonym Discussion of detain

keep, observe, celebrate, commemorate mean to notice or honor a day, occasion, or deed. keep stresses the idea of not neglecting or violating <kept the Sabbath by refraining from work>. observe suggests marking the occasion by ceremonious performance <not all holidays are observed nationally>. celebrate suggests acknowledging an occasion by festivity <traditionally celebrates Thanksgiving with a huge dinner>. commemorate suggests that an occasion is marked by observances that remind one of the origin and significance of the event <commemorate Memorial Day with the laying of wreaths>.

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>.

delay, procrastinate, lag, loiter, dawdle, dally mean to move or act slowly so as to fall behind. delay usually implies a putting off (as a beginning or departure) <we cannot delay any longer>. procrastinate implies blameworthy delay especially through laziness or apathy <procrastinates about making decisions>. lag implies failure to maintain a speed set by others <lagging behind in technology>. loiter and dawdle imply delay while in progress, especially in walking, but dawdle more clearly suggests an aimless wasting of time <loitered at several store windows> <children dawdling on their way home from school>. dally suggests delay through trifling or vacillation when promptness is necessary <stop dallying and get to work>.

DETAIN Defined for English Language Learners


verb de·tain \di-ˈtān, dē-\

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



  1. 1 :  to hold or keep in or as if in prison <The suspect was detained by police.>

  2. 2 :  to stop from going on :  delay <Snow detained our flight.>

Law Dictionary


transitive verb de·tain

Legal Definition of detain

  1. 1 :  to hold or keep in custody or possession <property wrongfully detained> <a juvenile detained in a care facility>

  2. 2 :  to restrain from proceeding <detained the driver and asked to see his license>

Learn More about detain

Seen and Heard

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to search out and expose misconduct

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