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

Did you know?

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

Examples of illiterate in a Sentence

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.
Recent Examples on the Web Jake, who is illiterate, asks the scholarly Bernstein to read the missive from his wife, and the terrible news passes through him like a kidney stone. Rhoda Feng, Washington Post, 2 Apr. 2024 That’s left fourth-graders who were somewhat behind when the pandemic hit in 2020 still functionally illiterate in eighth grade. Sonja Sharp, Los Angeles Times, 22 Mar. 2024 There was a time for hierarchical, command-and-control organizations–the 19th century, to be exact, when many workers were illiterate, information traveled at a snail’s pace, and strict adherence to rules offered the competitive advantage of reliability. Bill Anderson, Fortune, 21 Mar. 2024 This has to rank as one of the most economically illiterate and juvenile presidential crusades in recent history. Rich Lowry, National Review, 27 Feb. 2024 The consequences of not catching up and falling further behind lead to this sobering reality: About 28% of adults in California are illiterate. Jackie Valley, The Christian Science Monitor, 27 Feb. 2024 But one of the best surprises was the announcement that Chalamet was up for the gig, only for the camera to show not the actor himself, but Fineman as a manic, stuttering, and distinctly illiterate version of the Wonka star. Shania Russell,, 12 Nov. 2023 The loss of the symbol, which also helps illiterate voters identify their party’s candidates, is one of several disadvantages the PTI was dealing with in the run up to Thursday’s election. Hasan Ali, The Christian Science Monitor, 9 Feb. 2024 On Monday, Khan’s PTI party was banned from using its iconic cricket bat logo on ballot papers, significantly hampering its chances amongst an electorate which is up to 40% illiterate. Charlie Campbell, TIME, 17 Jan. 2024

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'illiterate.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

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 20 Apr. 2024.

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
Love words? Need even more definitions?

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