Illegible vs. Unreadable – What’s the Difference?

If you have ever read a seven-year-old’s handwriting, you know that it is illegible. But is the child’s writing also unreadable?

These two words are often used as synonyms. While both of them describe qualities of poor writing, they refer to different aspects of writing, and cannot be properly substituted for one another.

Continue reading to discover the differences between these adjectives.

What is the Difference Between Illegible and Unreadable?

In this post, I will compare illegible vs. unreadable. I will use each adjective in a sentence, so that you can see it in its proper context. I will also discuss a mnemonic that will make it easier to decide whether something is unreadable or illegible.

When to Use Illegible

Definition of unreadable definition and definition of illegible definitionWhat does illegible mean? Illegible is an adjective that describes sloppy or distorted writing that is not plain or clear enough to read.

Here are some examples,

  • My son is in third grade, and his cursive is illegible.
  • Jeannine spilled coffee onto her book, making the pages illegible.
  • The new logo uses a terrible font that makes the company name illegible.
  • There are stories like this all over Buenos Aires, among childhood friends, parishioners and others who have saved letters or notes from Francis in his tiny, nearly illegible handwriting. –The Washington Post

As you can see, if you have sloppy handwriting, your words may be illegible, but it doesn’t mean your prose is bad.

Humans have been using the written word for millennia. The words on some ancient documents are too faded to be made out, or the parchments have been damaged by water, smearing the ink. These manuscripts may have been fine prose, but time and the elements have rendered them illegible.

As such, illegible also has to do with defaced printing. Something may have been made illegible because someone spilled coffee on it, maybe someone tore up the paper, maybe the ink has faded, etc. These are all examples of things that are illegible.

When to Use Unreadable

Define unreadable and define illegibleWhat does unreadable mean? Unreadable is also an adjective. It describes writing that is of exceptionally poor quality that is too dull, obfuscatory, or nonsensical to read.

Here are some examples,

  • Emma did not proofread her essay, and it is so full of grammar and spelling errors that it is unreadable.
  • “This sludge is unreadable,” said the editor, throwing the manuscript into the recycling bin.
  • Kenna cancelled her subscription to the newspaper, calling its reporting unreadable.
  • To the contrary, it is common enough to be told that thoughts vested in the leaden garments of unreadable prose are more glorious than those we might snatch with our own oafish hands. –The New York Times

Trick to Remember the Difference

illegible versus unreadable Illegible and unreadable both describe undesirable types of writing, but they do so in different ways.

Unreadable refers to the content of writing—something that is unreadable might have many errors, be painfully boring, or not make sense. If you really wanted to read it, you could, but it is difficult.

Something that is illegible may be high quality content, but it still cannot be read—as mentioned above, the pages of a book may have faded, or someone may have spilled a drink on it.

Here is a helpful trick to remember unreadable vs. illegible. Since illegible and indecipherable are synonyms, and both begin with the letter I. You can use these two words to remember the correct usage for illegible.


Is it illegible or unreadable? Illegible and unreadable are two adjectives that describe the quality of writing.

  • Something that is illegible cannot be understood because the words and letters themselves cannot be deciphered.
  • Something that is unreadable suffers from poor content quality.

These words are somewhat counterintuitive. Since the definition of illegible seems like it would more literally apply to unreadable, many writers use them as synonyms. Still, the words mean different things, and for formal writing you will want to make sure you choose the correct one.

Illegible and indecipherable are synonyms that begin with the same letter, a useful mnemonic for remembering the definition of illegible.

Don’t sacrifice your credibility over poor word choice. Be sure to check this site any time you have questions about confusing words or other writing topics.