Definition of illiterate in English:



  • 1Unable to read or write.

    ‘his parents were illiterate’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘Men, women, and children attended these compulsory classes, and hundreds of thousands of illiterate Iraqis learned to read.’
    • ‘Indeed, one-million Quebecers are illiterate and can't read this simple phrase (although the rest surely can and will).’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘It's even read to illiterate factory labourers while they work.’
    • ‘In 1990 the World Bank estimated that half the population was illiterate (could not read or write).’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘His mother, apparently illiterate, was unable to sign her name as a witness to his marriage.’
    • ‘In Uganda, among those aged fifteen years and over, about 50 percent are illiterate (unable to read or write).’
    • ‘I was illiterate, unable to interact with people socially.’
    • ‘Do they really think horror fans are so illiterate they won't read subtitles?’
    • ‘In 1985 Mrs Nini initiated self-empowering schemes for local women, most of whom were illiterate and unable to find formal employment.’
    • ‘Most Sierra Leoneans are illiterate (cannot read and write) and have few job choices.’
    • ‘The best part though was that a number of the kids who were illiterate learned how to read and write through my program.’
    • ‘Children were not allowed to attend public schools and many were illiterate; reading and writing being ‘unnatural’ technologies that would corrupt the children.’
    • ‘Its members were unskilled workers, mostly uneducated, occasionally illiterate and often unable to read or speak English.’
    • ‘Later the journalist was told by his interpreter that the ‘warlord’ was wholly illiterate, unable even to sign his own name in writing.’
    • ‘Then he smiled and proffered an information leaflet that he could not read - he was illiterate, like four-fifths of the population.’
    • ‘Back in the 1830s, when he was a boy of 11, he used to read to illiterate London labourers during his lunch hours.’
    • ‘In addition, many South Africans were illiterate, and unable to read news reports of proceedings.’
    unable to read or write, unlettered, analphabetic, functionally illiterate
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    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.’
      ignorant, unknowledgeable, uneducated, untaught, unschooled, untutored, untrained, uninstructed, uninformed, unlearned, unread, unenlightened, benighted, backward
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    2. 1.2Uncultured or poorly educated.
      ‘the ignorant, illiterate town council’
      • ‘It preys on the ignorant, the illiterate, the gullible, and the meek.’
      • ‘Yeah I know there are illiterate peace activists as well.’
      • ‘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.’
    3. 1.3(especially of a piece of writing) showing a lack of education, especially an inability to read or write well.
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘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?’


  • A person who is unable to read or write.

    • ‘There were illiterates in Dickens and George Eliot.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘Without history you find yourself like illiterates who can't read the present.’
    • ‘Yet statistically, ‘nearly two thirds of the illiterates in the world are women.’’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’’
    • ‘The Merovingian kings were not boorish illiterates, but were able to read and write.’
    • ‘In India out of about 428 million illiterates 275 million are women.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘He funded books in a nation of illiterates and non-readers.’
    • ‘Where others see a generation of television-created illiterates, with short attention spans, or video-game addicts, he sees a new edition of humanity.’
    • ‘Automatons, illiterates and indigents of every shape and size, don't stop but aid this cruel crusade participate in their own demise.’
    • ‘The popularity of using such entertaining media to teach begs the question ‘are we nurturing a new breed of illiterates?’’
    • ‘Where are the serious people who can displace this flea-bitten ragtag circus of charlatans, illiterates, hucksters, kooks, and dumbells?’
    • ‘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)?’
    • ‘Think about it - when I was small, there were 4,000 illiterates for every middle-school student.’
    • ‘India has the majority of the world's illiterates - nearly 500 million.’


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