At my business most of the employees use the word inactivate frequently. Is this proper grammar? I've always used deactivate.


There are 88 examples of inactivate in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and 102 for deactivate, showing they occur with about equal frequency. Most of the examples for inactivate, though, are used in a biological context, talking about inactivating viruses, genes, and “potent mutagenic compounds”, for example. So inactivate appears to be a term of art in the science of biology.

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    Inactivate is also common in technology. I believe it derives from the fact that "active" and "inactive" are two opposing states, which leads to "activating" and "inactivating". – Lynn Nov 18 '11 at 3:41
  • @Lynn, it's not common in my experience (as a computer / firmware / embedded software engineer). I don't think I've ever heard anyone use it in a non-life-sciences professional context. – cp.engr Sep 19 '16 at 20:39
  • @cp.engr FWIW, as an application developer I do hear it frequently (e.g. when referring to account/billing states). – augurar Feb 24 '17 at 1:34

According to OneLook, it is a word in 25 dictionaries:


  • verb: make inactive
  • verb: release from military service or remove from the active list of military service

The New Oxford American Dictionary reports just an example of sentence with inactivate.

inactivate ɪnˈæktəˌveɪt/
verb [transitive]
make inactive or inoperative: household bleach does not inactivate the virus | [as adjective] (inactivated) an inactivated polio vaccine.

Outside that context, I have never heard somebody using that verb.


Dictionary.com says:

in·ac·ti·vate /inˈaktəˌvāt/
Verb: Make inactive or inoperative: inactivate the virus.

And according to Google deactivate has 8,180,000 results; inactivate has 17,600,000 results, implying it is even used more. Though there may be some specific domain in which it is used a lot on the Internet (scientific papers? military?).


When I was in the military way back in the seventies, we frequently used "active" and "inactive", and we used the very "activate" but never "inactivate". Contemporary usage seems to derive chiefly from the computer industry ('inactivate' and 'inactivated' are frequently used in programming commentary.


Another word that is used with a similar meaning is de- activate. But "inactivate" is perfectly fine.

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