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"Inevitable" and "unavoidable" have near-synonymous definitions per stock Google dictionary searches, and both words stem from the same Latin root, but I've also seen broad acknowledgement that they bear different connotations.

I've always treated "unavoidable" as pertaining to circumstances not relating to time, and "inevitable" as pertaining to circumstances that do pertain to time. That is, an event is inevitable if and only if it is unavoidable over an infinite time horizon. Call this [A].

Other online grammar sites have suggested:

  1. "unavoidable" implies an event will occur because of a choice that was made or because of a failure to take due action (that is, it was not always unavoidable), while "inevitable" implies the event is intrinsically unavoidable [B]

  2. "unavoidable" pertains to small-scale events, while "inevitable" pertains to much larger and more significant events [C]

  3. "inevitable" implies predestination (i.e. fate) while "unavoidable" does not [D]

  4. "unavoidable" is used mainly to stress the fact that an event could not be prevented, while "inevitable" places emphasis on the fact that the event must occur [E]

  5. there is no difference between the words and they're interchangeable in all contexts [F]

Which, if any, of these interpretations is correct, and why?

  • 3
    I'm going with interpretation E – Jim Oct 24 '14 at 4:58
  • Could you please cite your "Other online grammar sites". And attribute any citations you may have copied. – Mari-Lou A Oct 24 '14 at 8:34
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA: I've added a link. The first ~20 links (e.g. wordreference.com, reference.com, thefreedictionary.com) at the referenced search page are representative of the kinds of sites I visited. The interpretations in the OP are at best paraphrasing. Nothing was copied verbatim. – COTO Oct 24 '14 at 9:51
  • I mean it's up to you, but with only five definitions, you could state where you took them from, so users could check for themselves. Just a line at the bottom of the post saying Sources: 1. bla, 2. bla, 3. bla etc. And I would delete all the bracketed stuff. Once you've listed the definitions from 1 to 5 there's no need to add (interpretation A) etc. That's my tip which you're absolutely free to accept or reject :) – Mari-Lou A Oct 24 '14 at 10:01
  • @Mari-LouA: Unfortunately there isn't any one-to-one correspondence between the bullet points and individual sources. Many of the sources are simply anonymous comments. I do see your point about the brackets cluttering things up, hence I'll shorten them. :) – COTO Oct 24 '14 at 10:12
3

Generally considered synonyms, the two term have actually different shades of meaning as shown in the following extract: inevitable : (from Wiktionary)

Usage note:

  • Largely synonymous with unavoidable, slightly more formal (borrowed as a unit from Latin, rather than formed in English), and with nuances of a natural consequence that occurs after – “inevitable punishment”, “inevitable result”. By contrast, unavoidable has some nuance of existing circumstances – “I was unavoidably detained.” – without there necessarily being a cause.

  • Further, unavoidable has nuances of “could not have happened any other way, even if circumstances were different”, while inevitable connotes “given circumstances, this is the necessary result.” Compare “the disaster was inevitable”, meaning “sooner or later the disaster would happen (because they did not prepare)” with “the disaster was unavoidable”, meaning “even if they had prepared, the disaster would have happened”.

  • Often used with a negative connotation, but may be used with a positive or neutral sense of fate, as in “Given our preparations, our victory was inevitable.” in which case *unavoidable is not acceptable.

  • In the same manner, impreventable and inevitable have different nuances. The sense “the disease was inevitable” means “It was natural to suffer the disease”; the sense “the disease was impreventable” means “There was no preventive methods against the disease”.

  • Thus, "inevitable" indicates "unable to avoid due to natural or necessary matters", "unavoidable" indicates "unable to avoid due to incidental matters", impreventable indicates "unable to avoid due to the absence of preventive methods".

Ngram shows a wider use of inevitable vs unavoidable.

  • I'm seeing shades of pretty much all the potential answers here. These appear to be very nuanced words indeed. ;) The third point about "unavoidable" being inappropriate for a "positive or neutral sense of fate" is an apt observation. A statement like "Our victory was unavoidable." would certainly raise an eyebrow. – COTO Oct 24 '14 at 9:41
2

As Firth said, you shall know a word by the company it keeps. A corpus is a good tool for figuring out differences in meaning.

We'll use data from COCA. Overall inevitable is more frequent in the corpus (appearing 8850 times vs. 1285 for unavoidable). So if the words are used in exactly the same ways (just one being more common than the others), then you will expect to see inevitable about 7 times more than unavoidable for any given combination (call this our null hypothesis).

Below are the top ten hits for inevitable/unavoidable + [noun].

1 INEVITABLE RESULT 147
2 INEVITABLE CONSEQUENCE 81
3 INEVITABLE QUESTION 81
4 INEVITABLE PART 60
5 INEVITABLE CONCLUSION 47
6 INEVITABLE OUTCOME 45
7 INEVITABLE END 38
8 INEVITABLE COMPARISONS 34
9 INEVITABLE QUESTIONS 31
10 INEVITABLE CONSEQUENCES 30

1 UNAVOIDABLE PART 18
2 UNAVOIDABLE FACT 16
3 UNAVOIDABLE CONSEQUENCE 14
4 UNAVOIDABLE CONCLUSION 12
5 UNAVOIDABLE SIDE 9
6 UNAVOIDABLE RESULT 7
7 UNAVOIDABLE QUESTION 6
8 UNAVOIDABLE COLLISION 5
9 UNAVOIDABLE PROBLEM 5
10 UNAVOIDABLE CHOICE 4

I'll pick out three distributional anomalies. First, unavoidable fact appears 16 times, so you'd expect in the ball park of 100 hits for inevitable fact on our null hypothesis. Not so, there are only six. Inevitable collision? Three hits, versus 35 expected. Finally, inevitable conclusion appears about half as frequently as we would expect following the null hypothesis.

Noting these anomalies, I think that inevitable by default has a circumstantial meaning, while unavoidable has by default a particularized meaning. In other words, you would tend to use inevitable to refer to an outcome which a total set of circumstances favored, and you would tend to use unavoidable to refer to an outcome which a person has limited control over.

Facts are things which people try to avoid or ignore, but from the circumstantial point of view facts are just facts, so you see unavoidable favored. Similarly for conclusion. Likewise, when talking about collisions, you usually talk about it from the point of view of the unfortunate people who were involved. Note that these are just tendencies.

1

Inevitable means it is going to happen.

The end of the world is inevitable.

Unavoidable means it is going to happen to you (or whoever can't avoid it)

Death is unavoidable.

So you can have this epitaph:

The end of the world is inevitable, but not unavoidable. I won't be around when it happens. Good luck to the rest of you.

1

An interesting fact is that both words, inevitable and unavoidable have the same source and mean the same.

French éviter gives to avoid.

inevitable is modelled on French éviter. Ultimately Latin evitare and evitabilis.

unavoidable is derived from to avoid.

If there are interpretations as to a difference in use I would be doubtful and see whether such interpretations really can be verified. But I am sure that various speakers/writers use these words according their individual view and preference. The question is when a writer uses these words differently whether the reader will understand such subtleties of use.

1

Generally speaking the distinction for me is this:

Something is unavoidable when I can do nothing to stop it happening;

Something is inevitable when my ability to effect a difference is irrelevant.

Part of the confusion, for me at least, lies in the fact that many things can be both.

0

"unavoidable" means

Can not be avoided. If you are trying to avoid it, that is impossible.

"inevitable" means

it will happen.

the two are totally unrelated and have no shared meaning.

Something that is "un-avoidable" may, as it happens, not happen. So, it may be absolutely impossible that you can avoid it. But something else may happen - for example, the "thing" may simply disappear, it may go away, circumstances may change.

A simple example is, a TGV pilot discovers a cow standing on the track 500m ahead. Can she avoid the cow?

No, because (a) trains cannot steer and (b) TGVs require 510m to stop.

So the cow is unavoidable.

Is it inevitable that the TGV will hit the unfortunate cow? Certainly not - the cow could step off the tracks, the cow could disappear due to quantum phenomena, some quick-thinking farmers could push the cow off the track, a black hole could hit the earth at that moment, and so on.

It's commonplace to say "XYZ was unavoidable, but fortunately DEF happened and in the end I did not have to XYZ."

  • "Cannot be avoided" is the double negation of "it will happen", hence I disagree that the two aren't closely related. As for your example of conditional unavoidability, it would apply equally well to "inevitable". "To forgo the inevitable deadlock in the Senate, the President attached conditions to the bill," for example. – COTO Oct 24 '14 at 9:32
  • in that example it WAS avoidable, in fact easily avaoidable (via the poison pill conditions). and indeed it WAS inevitable ("it was surely going to happen"). that's a great example of how the two words are completely different. (For sure, they are "related" as you say.) – Fattie Oct 24 '14 at 12:42

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