Definition of illiterate in English:



  • 1Unable to read or write.

    ‘his parents were illiterate’
    • ‘Men, women, and children attended these compulsory classes, and hundreds of thousands of illiterate Iraqis learned to read.’
    • ‘This man no more than a spoiled child in a man's shoes; who could no more run a country than could an illiterate person read a book.’
    • ‘Indeed, one-million Quebecers are illiterate and can't read this simple phrase (although the rest surely can and will).’
    • ‘Then he smiled and proffered an information leaflet that he could not read - he was illiterate, like four-fifths of the population.’
    • ‘Children were not allowed to attend public schools and many were illiterate; reading and writing being ‘unnatural’ technologies that would corrupt the children.’
    • ‘Most Sierra Leoneans are illiterate (cannot read and write) and have few job choices.’
    • ‘I was illiterate, unable to interact with people socially.’
    • ‘It's even read to illiterate factory labourers while they work.’
    • ‘In Uganda, among those aged fifteen years and over, about 50 percent are illiterate (unable to read or write).’
    • ‘Its members were unskilled workers, mostly uneducated, occasionally illiterate and often unable to read or speak English.’
    • ‘His mother, apparently illiterate, was unable to sign her name as a witness to his marriage.’
    • ‘In 1990 the World Bank estimated that half the population was illiterate (could not read or write).’
    • ‘Later the journalist was told by his interpreter that the ‘warlord’ was wholly illiterate, unable even to sign his own name in writing.’
    • ‘In addition, many South Africans were illiterate, and unable to read news reports of proceedings.’
    • ‘Do they really think horror fans are so illiterate they won't read subtitles?’
    • ‘A commoner can practice the latter two means of attaining salvation, even if he is illiterate and unable to study the scriptures on his own.’
    • ‘Although her house was almost destroyed in the earthquake, this illiterate woman was unable to convince the Government representative, assessing the damage, that the house was beyond repair.’
    • ‘In 1985 Mrs Nini initiated self-empowering schemes for local women, most of whom were illiterate and unable to find formal employment.’
    • ‘Back in the 1830s, when he was a boy of 11, he used to read to illiterate London labourers during his lunch hours.’
    • ‘The best part though was that a number of the kids who were illiterate learned how to read and write through my program.’
    unable to read or write, unlettered, analphabetic, functionally illiterate
    View synonyms
    1. 1.1[with submodifier]Ignorant in a particular subject or activity.
      ‘the extent to which voters are politically illiterate’
      • ‘Couple a scientifically illiterate public with activist groups well-versed in scare tactics and what do you get?’
      • ‘Indeed, as I have wondered elsewhere, how long will Americans endure the arrogance and ignorance of their own technically illiterate politicians?’
      • ‘That they were able to do so handily and with a backward and politically illiterate film star as their standard bearer only underscores the dimensions of the Democratic collapse.’
    2. 1.2Uncultured or poorly educated.
      ‘the ignorant, illiterate Town Council’
      • ‘You have to ask yourself whether an illiterate country girl, ignorant in city ways, would have such a self-consciously literary mode of expressing herself.’
      • ‘We keep them in power, and they keep us illiterate, ignorant and prolific.’
      • ‘Such a defence is offered only to hoodwink the gullible, illiterate and ignorant millions.’
      • ‘Yeah I know there are illiterate peace activists as well.’
      • ‘It preys on the ignorant, the illiterate, the gullible, and the meek.’
    3. 1.3(of a piece of writing) showing a lack of education; badly written.
      ‘as you can see, I have corrected your misspelt, illiterate letter’
      • ‘Is it any wonder that our K - 12 education system is in such bad shape when such an illiterate, antiquated report has been circulated and used for more than a decade?’
      • ‘The screeches of some of the more outlandish among gloomy modern composers or the illiterate wailings of some vapid rock ‘musician’ are subjected to sham scholarship and pseudo philosophising.’
      • ‘Then he disparaged my writing for being too illiterate for some but too literate for others.’
      • ‘Even in 1935 they were being sent an ‘astonishing amount of illiterate and unintelligent writing’, but practised readers spent little time on it.’


  • A person who is unable to read or write.

    • ‘In the villages education had virtually packed up and adult literacy was actually declining: since 1981 the number of adult illiterates had risen from 13 to 15 million.’
    • ‘Automatons, illiterates and indigents of every shape and size, don't stop but aid this cruel crusade participate in their own demise.’
    • ‘Where are the serious people who can displace this flea-bitten ragtag circus of charlatans, illiterates, hucksters, kooks, and dumbells?’
    • ‘There were illiterates in Dickens and George Eliot.’
    • ‘He funded books in a nation of illiterates and non-readers.’
    • ‘The Merovingian kings were not boorish illiterates, but were able to read and write.’
    • ‘The popularity of using such entertaining media to teach begs the question ‘are we nurturing a new breed of illiterates?’’
    • ‘This reminds me of a quote from Italo Calvino (who was most certainly literate): ‘The ratio of literacy to illiteracy is constant, but now the illiterates can read.’’
    • ‘In India out of about 428 million illiterates 275 million are women.’
    • ‘Yet statistically, ‘nearly two thirds of the illiterates in the world are women.’’
    • ‘And if we do, are we saying that the illiterates amongst us should wait around while we as a society come up with a solution to their problems (which may or may not ever happen)?’
    • ‘Christians have been in India for the last 2,000 years, 40 per cent of them are still below the poverty line and an equal number are illiterates.’
    • ‘India has the majority of the world's illiterates - nearly 500 million.’
    • ‘The optimistic assumption is that a more literate nation will be more cohesive and socially inclusive: polite society need no longer fear the disengaged illiterates.’
    • ‘Everything is falling into the hands of the already-haves, even when it comes to resettling the landless, the qualifying criteria is to fool the illiterates who keep on applying to no avail for the sake of formality.’
    • ‘Without history you find yourself like illiterates who can't read the present.’
    • ‘I was repeatedly assured, by sophisticates and illiterates alike, that the king was on the CIA payroll, proof more of his fiscal savvy than his political corruption.’
    • ‘He says with a hint of anguish that more than literates, it is the so-called illiterates who are forthright and capable of accepting challenges.’
    • ‘Where others see a generation of television-created illiterates, with short attention spans, or video-game addicts, he sees a new edition of humanity.’
    • ‘Think about it - when I was small, there were 4,000 illiterates for every middle-school student.’


Late Middle English: from Latin illitteratus, from in- not + litteratus (see literate).