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Is the difference in meanings between inobtrusive and unobtrusive enough to warrant a distinction in their use? Or are they interchangeable?

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I would argue that they are interchangeable and that there is little variation in their meanings. In fact, it seems that inobtrusive is just a variation of unobtrusive, and many dictionaries cite unobtrusive as a definition for inobtrusive. According to Google Ngrams, the variant inobtrusive is almost nonexistent. The spellchecker for this very editor doesn't even recognize inobtrusive as a word. In general, I'd stick with unobtrusive.

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    The OED says that they are synonymous and marks inobtrusive as "rare." – deadrat Oct 24 '15 at 20:07
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They are just synonyms, inobtrusive being the less common variant as shown in Ngram.

Unobtrusive

  • Not undesirably noticeable or blatant; inconspicuous.

Inobtrusive:

  • Not noticeable; unobtrusive.

(AHD)

Ngram: unobtrusive vs inobtrusive

Un-:

  • prefix of negation, Old English un-, from Proto-Germanic "un".

  • The most prolific of English prefixes, freely and widely used in Old English, where it forms more than 1,000 compounds. It underwent a mass extinction in early Middle English, but emerged with renewed vigor 16c. to form compounds with native and imported words.

  • It disputes with Latin-derived cognate in- (1) the right to form the negation of certain words (indigestable/undigestable, etc.), and though both might be deployed in cooperation to indicate shades of meaning (unfamous/infamous), typically they are not.

(Etymonline)

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I disagree; there is a difference.

"Inobtrusive" indicates the case for something of immediate and direct consequence (like a finger in an eye).

"Unobtrusive" works better when used to describe an element in a more sedate and benign fashion (like a car parked out of the way somewhere).

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  • Please consider strengthening your answer by providing corroboration (in the form of dictionary definitions that support the same distinction you make in your answer) of your views from a reputable third-party source. – Sven Yargs Sep 6 '16 at 8:19
  • My reputable source is Literature and Prose and a little feeling, so its rather difficult to quantify. No doubt,readers better inclined towards academia will do a better job in this than I. I am afraid this is a case more for art than science. Its best approached with due respect for the nebulous, if present. – Vincent Sep 6 '16 at 8:28

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