I had to edit my question because I think it led to misunderstanding.

For me, the definition of "immunity" is quite different from "impunity", and I know the differences. But what I don't know is that is the law the thing that draw the line?

It seems to me they both refer to exemption from punishment.

for example, a police officer can kill a criminal, whereas I cannot.

Another example is that a diplomat raped and tortured two women but nothing happened. But if a man who has a powerful and wealthy father did that, the word impunity would be said.

So, here is the question:

Does only the law define the differences?

  • "Immunity" has a much broader meaning than just exemption from (legal or other) punishment. For example, vaccinations are intended to confer immunity from diseases. – Andreas Blass Dec 13 '15 at 0:37
  • "Immunity" means that someone has some characteristics that prevent him to suffer from being punished or affected. "Impunity" refers to a situation deserving a punishment, but for some reason, the sanction was not (or cannot be) given or applied. – Graffito Dec 13 '15 at 0:42
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because legal usages are not general English usages (and are specifically off-topic on ELU, probably so as to avoid having to pay damages). – Edwin Ashworth Dec 14 '15 at 8:16
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    I seriously doubt that "the law" defines "impunity" at all, given that "impunity" effectively means "above the law". "Immunity", in the legal sense, is defined in a number of fairly narrow cases. Eg, diplomatic immunity, immunity from prosecution for a certain set of charges in exchange for "turning state's evidence", etc. – Hot Licks Dec 14 '15 at 14:03

According to the Grammarist immunity has a broader meaning than impunity which is rarely found outside legal contexts:

Immunity vs impunity

  • Impunity is the ability to act without negative consequences.

  • The word differs from the broader immunity, which refers to

    • (1) the ability to resist a disease,
    • (2) exemption from obligation imposed by others,
    • (3) jlegally granted freedom from prosecution, and
    • (4) unresponsiveness to influence.
  • Impunity is a type of immunity, and the two words come especially close together where immunity refers to freedom from prosecution, but immunity in this sense is generally a legal term and doesn’t appear often in other contexts. Where someone is able to act with minimal risk of negative consequences, legal or otherwise, impunity is the better word.

Example usage:


  • The only way to treat it is to suppress a patient’s immunity, calming reactions but leaving sufferers vulnerable to any infection. [Mirror]

  • None of these matters have yet hit home with the voters, giving him some immunity in his conduct of foreign affairs. [NJ.com]

  • In exchange, Saleh and his family would receive immunity from prosecution. [Denver Post]


  • And the silence that surrounds violent extremist attacks, the tacit approval for fear of being next, emboldens the killers to kill again with impunity. [Sydney Morning Herald]

  • Chu said organized criminals can launder money with impunity in casinos because police departments don’t have the resources to treat that crime as a priority. [The Province]

  • Before 2003, diplomats enjoyed just this type of impunity when parking on city streets. [Wall Street Journal]


Immunity and impunity are used in different situations. One can differentiate them based on legal usage, however in common usage the line between the words is often blurred. A doctor would not say that a virus acted with impunity, for a variety of reasons, the least of which is that viruses aren't typically thought of as living beings with a will to act on their own. In the medical sense, immunity refers to the ability of an organism to resist diseases or changes to it's integrity because of an outside agent.

Let's examine immunity in it's other sense. Let's say that prosecutors have captured a leader in a crime syndicate. Prosecutors know that this leader has a lot of information that can help them capture other criminals but they know they defense will be worried that their defendant will also have to admit to committing crimes. The prosectors will offer the defendant immunity from prosecution so that he will freely talk. So, during a trial, he can freely admit to committing crimes without worrying that he will be punished. In this case, he is not offered impunity and he is not acting with impunity, although if you just go by the dictionary definition, you might think "why not use impunity?" Immunity also has a sense of exemption from duties. For example, a king is immune to income tax, or a diplomat is immune to local laws.

Let's take a look at impunity. A feudal prince has a powerful and wealthy father. He knows that he can wander about the countryside with his henchmen, and demand money, property, favors, and other improper things not accorded to him by law or custom. He acts with impunity toward his subjects. Impunity is usually used for these kinds of situations. A person does something knowing that the likelihood of consequences is small. Authority figures are people that act with impunity. In my opinion, it has a negative connotation. In current debate about policing practices in the US, impunity is a word that could be used, "Police acted with impunity." In my opinion, this has a negative connotation.

In the above scenario with the prince, it is possible to use the word "immune" because the word has drifted from it's origins and now has a broader sense of resistance. So one could describe the above scenario by saying "The prince acted as if he was immune to prosecution." It's is my opinion that when using immune in this way, one should say what one is immune to, i.e. prosecution. One could also say "Police forces acted as if they were immune to prosecution." To me, it doesn't quite have the negative feel that impunity does. Other users may disagree on this.

It's worth noting that the word impunity is built up of the prefix im and the root pun or impunis in Latin which means "free of punishment." For etymology of Immunity see this link. This link says that the use of immune in a medical sense was first recorded in 1879, however a google ngram search shows that the word was used in a medical sense earlier than that. I am not an immunologist or medical historian so perhaps my interpretation of the ngram results is incorrect. I looked up immunity in ngram to get a sense of how the word was used before the widespread use of it in a medical sense, however I could not find anything that was helpful to my understanding.


The definition of "immunity" is quite clearer than "impunity". But it seems to me they both refer to exemption from punishment.

For a start, "The definition of "immunity" is quite clearer than "impunity"." is not a grammatical sentence, for me at least.

Apart from that, "immunity" means that something is protected from a range of things - whether legal or medical. However "impunity" has a much more colourful sense of meaning that someone is acting recklessly, as if they know they have "immunity" from negative consequences, or equally commonly (perhaps even more so), they do not care about any consequences.

It's true (but only to a very limited extent) that they both mean that someone or something might have exemption from the law, but their use is very different indeed.

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    ***For a start, "The definition of "immunity" is quite clearer than "impunity"." is not a grammatical sentence, for me at least. *** <---- That kind of comment's not very helpful to other readers or to the OP unless you help them out by explaining why or giving the correct sentence. Or you could even hep by giving them a quick edit :) It detracts from your answer! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 13 '15 at 1:44
  • I don't think recklessness is a necessary element of impunity. For instance, if I know that my online actions can't be traced, I can download copyrighted material with impunity, but that's hardly reckless. By the way, I am not the downvoter. – deadrat Dec 13 '15 at 12:10

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