English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

What does "uncancellable" mean? Does it mean that something may be uncancelled, or that something may not be cancelled? [Edit:] How would one express each of those ideas?

For bonus points, is there a way to be indicate that something may be not uncancelled? In-uncancellable?

share|improve this question
See also: unlockable :) – Kosmonaut Jun 27 '11 at 22:19
For "not able to be uncanceled", how about "irrevocably canceled", "irreversibly canceled" or "permanently canceled"? You could then use "reversibly canceled" for "ununcancelable". – Peter Shor Jun 27 '11 at 22:37
@Peter I like those ideas. I wanted to stick with the canceled theme for the sake of consistency; people might not immediately associate "reinstatable" or something with a "canceled" attribute found elsewhere. – jtpereyda Jun 27 '11 at 22:46
up vote 6 down vote accepted

The answer is: it is ambiguous between the two meanings, and one must use context to determine which meaning is intended. (This is, of course, accepting that uncancel is a real word. I am perfectly willing to say it is; in the past decade or so it has become a very real word in the computing realm.)

This ambiguity is because we have two un- prefixes in English. One attaches to adjectives and means "not" (e.g. unclear), and the other attaches to verbs and means the reverse of the action of the verb (e.g. untie). When you have an adjective formed from a verb by a suffix, then it may be impossible to tell how deeply the un- prefix is attached; that is:

un[cancelable] or [uncancel]able

So, if both forms make sense, as they do with un-cancelable and uncancel-able, then we have ambiguity.

Another good example is unlockable ("not able to be locked" or "able to be unlocked"). Yet another one is untied ("never been tied at all" or "tied at one time but then untied").

Technically speaking, the ad-hoc word for "not able to be uncancelled" (assuming you really want to use one word), would be ununcancelable. For the sake of readability, I would recommend writing it as un-uncancelable; that said, the best approach would probably be to use more words :)

share|improve this answer
Thanks; that ambiguity is somewhat unfortunate in my situation, but now I know. The fact that "un-" can be used both ways makes the answer to my second question rather silly. – jtpereyda Jun 27 '11 at 22:53
PS: Good English for a Russian. ;) – jtpereyda Jun 27 '11 at 22:54
Excellent answer. I was a bit bothered when I read your comment re "unlockable" against the Q - I really thought I was heading for a logical/lexical minefield. But you've guided me through it safely, thanks! :) – FumbleFingers Jun 28 '11 at 1:33

I means that something may not be cancelled - perhaps because there is no mechanism for doing so, or because it is simply not allowed (for example, an order for something to be made).

I don't think there would be a word for "not able to be uncancelled", that's probably too many negatives in a row.

share|improve this answer
If this is the case, how would one indicate that something is able to be uncancelled? – jtpereyda Jun 27 '11 at 22:23
@Josh: using more than one word: "[If no-one else has taken your space] you can reinstate your cancelled appointment", or "You can rejoin the club after cancelling your subscription". – Jonathan Leffler Jun 27 '11 at 22:38

Yes there is ambiguity, though I would read uncancellable as being capable of being uncancelled (in the unlikely event of wanting such a phrase) and use noncancellable for something which cannot be cancelled (though irrevocable is a real word which means much the same thing).

For the bonus nonuncancellable for something which is not uncancellable. But it is ugly.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.