adjective un·ten·a·ble \ˌən-ˈte-nə-bəl\

Definition of untenable

  1. 1 :  not able to be defended an untenable position

  2. 2 :  not able to be occupied untenable apartments


play \ˌən-ˌte-nə-ˈbi-lə-tē\ noun

untenable was our Word of the Day on 02/13/2015. Hear the podcast!

Examples of untenable in a sentence

  1. The Agriculture Department is in an untenable position. With the two hats that it wears—one to protect consumer health and the other to help farmers sell food—it cannot tell us to eat fewer calories. After all, fewer calories generally mean less food, which would fly in the face of the department's mandate to help farmers. —Marian Burros, New York Times, 14 Aug. 2002

  2. All the theories of the Moon's origin proposed before the Apollo Moon landings of 1969 … became untenable when the rocks returned from the Moon proved to be as old as the Earth and significantly dissimilar. —Physics Today, January 1997

  3. The problem was then resolved—not by finding that the conduct in question was justified, because that would have offended the judge's sense of order, and not by rejecting the applicability of the defense, which would have led to a reportable opinion and an appeal—but through a dismissal of the charges on the wholly untenable ground that the prosecution had not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. —Edward N. Costikyan, New York Times Book Review, 13 Mar. 1988

  4. But scholars are citizens, too, and if it is wrongheaded to demand political payoff from basic research, it would be equally untenable to demand that research be quarantined from the real-world considerations that weigh so heavily upon us. —Henry Louis Gates, Jr., New York Times, 4 Apr. 1998

Did You Know?

Untenable and its opposite tenable come to us from Old French tenir and ultimately from Latin tenēre, both of which mean "to hold." We tend to use untenable in situations where an idea or position is so off base that holding on to it is unjustified or inexcusable. One way to hold on to the meaning of "untenable" is to associate it with other tenēre descendants whose meanings are associated with "holding" or "holding on to." Tenacious" ("holding fast") is one example. Others are contain, detain, sustain, maintain, and retain.


First Known Use of untenable


UNTENABLE Defined for English Language Learners


adjective un·ten·a·ble \ˌən-ˈte-nə-bəl\

Definition of untenable for English Language Learners

  • : not capable of being defended against attack or criticism : not tenable

Seen and Heard

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


capable of being understood in two ways

Get Word of the Day daily email!


Take a 3-minute break and test your skills!

Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!


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