Unlawful, illegal or illicit?

07 Oct

Today we’re going to be a little bit cheeky, again, like we were when we were immoral … or was it amoral?  There’s been a lot of sad news this week and it’s nice to kick back and break the rules every now and again.  Oh, well, who am I kidding: it’s nearly midnight, I’ve worked a long day and then realised I didn’t have a Troublesome Pair to publish when one was due, so here I am, conforming to my own laws, let alone everyone else’s!  Without further ado, then: unlawful, illegal or illicit?

Something is illegal when it is actually against the law, for example selling drugs, going around killing people, that sort of thing. Sorry, I don’t mean to be flippant: like I said, it’s been a long day.  So illegal: against the law.

An unlawful action is also against the law … but it’s against the law – or, more properly, rules – within a specific context, rather than the actual laws of the land.  So if you’re watching Strictly Come Dancing, and the dancers perform a lift when the lady’s feet aren’t meant to leave the floor, that’s unlawful.  But not illegal.

An illicit action is more commonly used nowadays to describe something that is forbidden by custom or society – you can have an illicit love affair, or sneak an illicit cigarette when you say you’ve given up.

“Their illicit love affair turned illegal when she punished him for the unlawful act of not wearing white on the court at Wimbledon by libelling him in the papers.”

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.


Posted by on October 7, 2011 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


Tags: , , ,

4 responses to “Unlawful, illegal or illicit?

  1. Kate

    October 7, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    I always like the sentences you create to demonstrate how to use the words – thanks Liz


  2. Holmesfan

    October 8, 2011 at 4:49 am

    I don’t think you can slander someone in the papers. Perhaps you should do a troublesome ‘pair’ with slander and libel. Otherwise the item is v. good.


    • Liz at Libro

      October 8, 2011 at 7:04 am

      You’re right as usual and yes, indeed, could happily add those two to the list! Thank you!



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