What is the antonym of "action," with the connotation an action one decide not to take when he should have done, as in:

You are responsible for your actions and inactions.

Does the word "inaction" provide that? I think it does, but to me it sounds it encompasses a larger set. Is there a better choice with a stronger implication?

  • 3
    Is your meaning similar to the concept in Catholicism of sins of commission and omission? Commented May 7 at 10:33
  • Answers go in the answer box, not in the comment box.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 7 at 16:15

2 Answers 2


I'd use 'failure to act', which is suitably pejorative and quite idiomatic (a fixed phrase), but the law people have a stipulatively defined term (mentioned in another domain by Paul above):

In law, an omission is a failure to act, which generally attracts different legal consequences from positive conduct. In the criminal law, an omission will constitute an actus reus and give rise to liability only when the law imposes a duty to act and the defendant is in breach of that duty.


(The link for the definition of 'stipulative definition' [as well as for 'precising definition'] is also to a Wikipedia article.)

But as I say, in everyday life, use 'failure to act' (or 'neglect' / 'negligence').

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    While this may be true in general, I think the OP's phrase "actions and inactions" is perfectly fine. The parallel nature of the terms makes it more melifluous than "actions and failures to act" or "actions and omissions".
    – Barmar
    Commented May 7 at 16:40
  • The count use of 'inaction' is not licensed by OALD, Collins, CD, Britannica, or Longman, making it very rare (Wiktionary has it). Commented May 7 at 18:00
  • "Failure to act" to me connotes a responsibility for or expectation of action, but might not be appropriate to describe doing nothing in general. A day with sporadic activity might have moments of action and inaction, but unless you're supposed to be doing something during the times you're doing nothing, it would not have moments where you are failing to act. Commented May 7 at 18:16
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    @NuclearHoagie How would you reconcile responsibility for the idle periods? The quote in the question seems to be talking about choosing not to do something when you could or should.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 7 at 19:31
  • i'd just bump up the 'in' to a 'non'.
    – mcalex
    Commented May 8 at 3:43

The question deals with two thing: an antonym for inertia; and the identification of a particular form of that antonym.

The antonym of action is inaction. The two words are mutually exclusive sets that together make an exhaustive set that covers all possibilities.

Merriam Webster, for example, has

Merriam Webster
lack of action or activity
as a result of the park department's inaction, the city's pools are not ready to open for the summer

Turning to the second theme of the question, it asks for a word to describe not mere inaction, but inaction when action might be expected.

The prime candidate is inertia. There are two reasons for this choice.

First, we have

lack of activity or interest, or unwillingness to make an effort to do anything
The organisation is stifled by bureaucratic inertia

Secondly, the concept of inertia relates to the tendency of a body to resist movement from an applied force. It stems from Newton’s Laws of motion. Linguistic usage draws an analogy with Newton’s use of the word.

See for example:

Newton’s first law states that every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force. This tendency to resist changes in a state of motion is inertia.

There are other weaker possibilities such as dallying, indolence, lethargy and others but their appropriateness will depend more on context.

  • While Wordnik states inaction can be countable I do not recall ever hearing it used in the plural. Google ngram viewer shows "inactions" is about 14 times rarer than "inaction", while "actions" occurs about half as often as "action".
    – Peter
    Commented May 13 at 7:41

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