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I got stuck in my exam when there were two options which look similar in meaning. Interestingly, the examiner gave two synonyms. The sentence was:

The hockey team could not deal with his unsociable/unsocial tendencies.

Both mean having or showing a lack of desire for the company of others.

Could anyone tell the difference between the two?

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I think the reason both are used is that the writer wants to convey both a lack of interest in the group as well as an active hostility towards it. As demonstrated below, the words' meanings are not set in stone. However, by using both words the writer is making clear he/she means passive/tacit rejection of or distance from the group as well as an outright rejection of it. –  Simon Hoare Dec 23 '12 at 17:54
    
@SimonHoare I think OP means that his exam calls upon him to select one of the terms as more appropriate than the other. –  StoneyB Dec 23 '12 at 18:03
    
No, you're right. I just reread it. –  Simon Hoare Dec 23 '12 at 19:09
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4 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

This is a tricky question, because the meanings of these terms have shifted, gradually and inconsistently, over the past century and a half.

In the early 19th century, both meant pretty much the same thing: "averse to social intercourse, uncompanionable". During the course of the century, however, unsocial came more and more to mean "hostile to society" and particularly "hostile to the existing social structure". By the end of the century which of these meanings was meant by any given use of unsocial was evident only in context. Bernard Shaw played on that ambiguity when he titled his last novel An Unsocial Socialist, for its hero is both.

Unsociable continued to have its original meaning, and still does today.

In the 20th century a third term came into play: antisocial. This had been around since the 18th century, but took off in the 1890s, in both BE and AE, as the favored term for designating both those who were politically opposed to the existing structure and those whose actions or opinions were regarded as dangerous to society at large. In the latter sense particularly it has taken hold in the social sciences, to such an extent that since about 1930 it has completely outstripped both unsocial and unsociable in frequency of use.

Today, at least in AE, unsocial has pretty much reverted to the older sense, and is used interchangeably with unsociable - see Bill Franke's answer.

I notice, however, that your screenname suggests you are a speaker of Indian English. Here the situation is somewhat different. A quick Google on "unsocial India" reveals a preponderance of hits where unsocial bears a meaning which in AE would more likely be expressed with antisocial.

I suspect, therefore, that your examiner wants you to select unsocial, suggesting one whose behaviour and attitude exhibits hostility towards other team members, excites hostility among them, rather than unsociable, suggesting merely one who does not participate much in team social activities.

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@ stoneyB: Great answer. I admire your linguistic competence. –  Sudhir Dec 23 '12 at 17:38
    
@Sudhir Alas, I do not participate in social media, being of a shy and unforthcoming character except (as anyone here can tell you) with respect to my craft. –  StoneyB Dec 23 '12 at 17:52
    
@Sudhir If you will create an appropriately-titled Chat Room I will be happy to engage you. –  StoneyB Dec 23 '12 at 18:11
    
@Sudhir No more do I - I was hoping you did! :) –  StoneyB Dec 23 '12 at 18:18
    
@Sudhir I must for professional reasons quarantine my work here. –  StoneyB Dec 23 '12 at 18:24
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Unsociable normally applies only to people and describes those who do not mix readily or willingly with others. Unsocial can apply to people in almost the same way, but can have rather different reference, and possibly different collocations. Whereas unsociable might describe an unchangeable character trait, unsocial can be used to describe a particular and temporary instance of a person’s behaviour. (This, let me say, is a purely intuitive response, and would need to be supported – or callenged – by corpus evidence.) The big difference is that unsocial can refer to inanimate and abstract entities. We speak of ‘unsocial hours rather than ‘unsociable hours’.

In the example, much depends on the context. If the person in question was being disruptive, then his behaviour could be described as antisocial. If he didn’t get along with the others at all, then this would be not so much a tendency as a permanent feature, in which case he could be described as having an unsociable personality. If he was unfriendly only on occasion, then he might be described as being unsocial from time to time.

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The -able prefix suggests an impossibility of the subject being the recipient of the action. Unsociable suggests you cannot socialise with the person e.g. because the he/she is unfriendly, not interested in social interaction etc. Unsocial simply means the subject is not social i.e. doesn't reach out to others, doesn't respond etc. –  Simon Hoare Dec 23 '12 at 17:35
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This is strictly a style problem. Both words are acceptable. Have you checked [Google Ngrams]1 to see which is more prevalent? I prefer "unsociable". Two hundred years ago, "unsocial" was twice as prevalent, but now "antisocial" seems to be the word of choice. However, that's an extreme, it seems to me. Shy people aren't necessarily antisocial, just unsocial or unsociable because of fear. Antisocial people are generally hostile to others.

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@ Bill Franke: Any specific reason for giving more preference to "unsociable"? –  Sudhir Dec 23 '12 at 9:01
    
No, no specific reason. I prefer the sound of "sociable" to "social" in this sentence. However, when I describe myself, I use "not very social". I dislike groups and teams and most social activity. I know how to be sociable, but prefer not to be most of the time, so I wouldn't say that I'm "not very sociable": I can be if I want to be. I agree with most of Barrie's answer, but think that sociability is a learned skill that appears transiently in my personality. I'm not saying that he's wrong & I'm right, just that we disagree. This is the problem with opinions about usage: they differ. :-) –  user21497 Dec 23 '12 at 9:43
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There's not really any scope for "stylistic choice" on this one today. Standard usage is quite clear...

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Whereas OP's definition (having or showing a lack of desire for the company of others) might indeed be valid for unsociable/unsocial, it's unlikely that's what the team could not deal with (their problem is probably that he's actively antagonistic to sociable instincts or practices). Having said that, antisocial can (but normally doesn't) simply mean not interested in social interaction.

Whoever set OP's exam question is in the wrong job; he doesn't know English well enough for this.

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