Reading on wikitionary as well as many other dictionary sites, the word inable is "obselete" or "rare". However, just in my internal monologue I use that word all the time, and to me it sounds better in certain contexts. Would it be frowned upon if I were to use inable rather than unable in an essay, or is it ok to do so?

  • What dictionaries other than Wiktionary (and sites that copy Wiktionary) have this word? I checked the OED and didn't find it, although it does list "inhabile" as an obsolete word meaning "unable". – Laurel Jun 27 '18 at 3:02
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    Whether it would be frowned upon depends on your potential frowner. Some teachers might welcome archaic spellings (especially if you did this intentionally in a literary context), whereas others might simply run the spell checker and mark you down. Yet others might think you’re imitating ‘preschooler spelling’. We not in a good position to answer that question, unfortunately. – Lawrence Jun 27 '18 at 3:40
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    If you used it in conversation, I would think you had said "enable", which would probably leave me "inable" to comprehend your meaning. :-) In text, I would probably assume you were either (a) a poor speller or (b) a poor proofreader, but either way it would reflect badly on your essay. – Hellion Jun 27 '18 at 3:40

The new usage is to use "un" instead of "in". But it's not that simple.

Affixes.org explains:

  • in - Not; without.

[Latin in-.]

This prefix is added to adjectives to give a negative sense (infertile, inarticulate, inexpensive, invariable) and to nouns to indicate a lack of something (inattention, incapacity, insensitivity). Many examples exist, but in- is not a living form, new words instead being created using un-, to which it is closely related in sense. There is no clear rule deciding which should be used: see un- for more information. See also the next entry.

The prefix is spelled il- before stems beginning in l (illegitimate, illiberal), im- before b, m, and p (imbalance, immoral, impossible), and ir- before r (irrational, irregular).

  • un - Negation; reversal of a state.

[Old English prefixes un- and on-, of Germanic origin.]

This prefix occurs extremely widely; the majority of adjectives, adverbs, and verbs (and many nouns) can in principle be given it to create a new word indicating an opposite or a reversal.

A very few of the many examples in the sense of ‘not’ are unconnected, unenclosed, unfashionable, unhappy, unloved, unmade, unsuitable, and unwilling. In this sense, un- often has a stronger and less neutral force than just negation (so it is not equivalent to non-): unkind can mean active cruelty rather than a simple lack of kindness; to say someone is un-American can imply an active antagonism to American ways.

With verbs, it usually has the sense of reversing some state: unblock, unburden, unhook, unlace, unsettle, unstick, untie, unwind, unzip.

Un- is closely related in sense to in-, but although the latter prefix is common it is no longer active. There is no good rule to decide which is the right form in any given situation and terms have to be learnt. To confuse matters somewhat, some noun-adjective pairs use different prefixes: instability corresponds to unstable; inequality to unequal; injustice to unjust. In a few cases, pairs of adjectives exist in both prefixes with similar senses: inadvisable and unadvisable; incommunicative and uncommunicative. In a few other pairs, members have significantly different senses, as with unhuman, not resembling or having the qualities of a human being, versus inhuman, lacking human qualities of compassion and mercy.

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    So? Eh, Rob? (Even the name is too short to fill in for minimum characters.) – Kris Jun 27 '18 at 8:02
  • @Kris, so! – Rob Jun 27 '18 at 8:09

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