adjective il·lit·er·ate \ (ˌ)i(l)-ˈli-t(ə-)rət \
|Updated on: 31 Jul 2018

Definition of illiterate

1 : having little or no education; especially : unable to read or write
  • an illiterate population
2 a : showing or marked by a lack of familiarity with language and literature
  • an illiterate magazine
b : violating approved patterns of speaking or writing
3 : showing or marked by a lack of acquaintance with the fundamentals of a particular field of knowledge
  • musically illiterate







Examples of illiterate in a Sentence

  1. 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 Journal1 Feb. 2006
  2. Martin is not illiterate but I think close to it. I never saw him read a newspaper, for instance. —Hayden CarruthReluctantly1998
  3. 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 SaganThe Demon-Haunted World1996
  4. She didn't want anyone to know that she was illiterate.

  5. She is politically illiterate and has never voted in an election.

  6. He's illiterate when it comes to computers.

Recent Examples of illiterate from the Web

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

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.

Origin and Etymology of illiterate

Middle English, from Latin illiteratus, from in- + litteratus literate

Synonym Discussion of 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

ILLITERATE Defined for English Language Learners


Definition of illiterate for English Language Learners

  • : not knowing how to read or write

  • : having or showing a lack of knowledge about a particular subject

  • : not grammatically correct

ILLITERATE Defined for Kids



adjective il·lit·er·ate \ i-ˈli-tə-rət \

Definition of illiterate for Students

: unable to read or write




Definition of illiterate for Students

: a person who is unable to read or write

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