disused

It's been months! Contrary to what's perceptible, I am still a blogger! It's just that in the aftermath of the BOOK, I've had a lot of other writing and public-engaging to do. Much of it is collected here. The most recent piece I've published was in The Guardian, and relates to some of my current research with Rachele De Felice (discussed a bit here). In the midst of all this book-promoting and writing for others, I've had to manage working my 7.5 hours/day at the day job.

So let me slip gently back into blogging, with an nice little adjective suggested to me by Paul, a correspondent who's now lived longer in the US than in his birthplace Britain. He writes:
From the Guardian, this caught my eye:

"This grade I-listed house was built in 1704 and refronted by Robert Adam in 1774-80. Inside, it has a number of ravishing interiors which are still intact. It was sold 10 years ago and since then the house has been disused."

'Disused' by H.L.I.T.

Disused? What's wrong with unused ? :) 

Fairly sure this term has been almost completely replaced by "unused" in AmE.  Obviously, the "dis" prefix has "previously used" as an implication that "unused" lacks. But still ... it really grated on my (inner) hears to read "the house has been disused" and though it worth drawing to your marvellous attention.



(Paul is showing his birthplace there with the double-L in marvellous!)

While it grates on Paul, I find the distinction between unused (connotations of 'pristine') and disused (connotations of 'abandoned') rather useful.

And I'd just not noticed it as British, but (orig. BrE) lookee here:


Very British. So, three possibilities:
  1. It never made it to America (i.e. it was invented after AmE & BrE split).
  2. It existed before British settlement in North America, but fell out of use into disuse in the new place. [Thanks to Tobias in the comments for the improved phrasing.]
  3. It existed before British settlement, but maybe it wasn't part of the vocabulary of the people who settled in the US.
We can rule out option 1 right away. The OED has the current sense of disused back in the 1600s, so it existed for the British to bring it to America. And we can probably rule out number 3, since it seems to have been well used in 19th century AmE:

In the mid-20th century, Americans hardly knew the word at all. (It was an autological word in AmE. Disused was disused!)

But look at it getting bluer in the 2000s. Could it be in the process of a second westward migration?


66 comments

  1. I agree that there's a useful distinction between the words. Unfortunately, "disused" is so little known here in the USA that I remember having to explain it somebody a number of years ago.

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  2. I wonder if this is only a difference with the past tense "disused". As an AmE speaker, things like "it fell into disuse" or "muscles atrophied from disuse" sound fine to me; but "has been disused" definitely sounds off.

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    1. Good point! It's also worth noting that in the examples you've given (which, as an AmE speaker myself, I'm in agreement with) "disuse" is a noun and not a verb. Indeed, I just went to Google and typed in "disuse" as a search term and Google presented me with this definition from Dictionary.com:

      dis·use
      disˈyo͞os/
      noun
      the state of not being used.

      On the other hand, Merriam-Webster.com gives primacy to the verb when it defines the word:

      to discontinue the use or practice of

      And its definition of the noun differs from that of Dictionary.com by stressing the end of use:

      cessation of use or practice

      And interestingly, its "Recent Examples of DISUSE from the Web" lists one from an American newspaper that mimics the usage that so troubled PaulDavisTheFirst:

      "Beneath the dirt and disuse of the Uvalde home are signs of the home’s past grandeur."

      Richard A. Marini, San Antonio Express-News, "Dale Evans’ Uvalde home for sale — but needs tons of work," 25 Apr. 2018

      Still, it's worth noting that in this example the word is a noun and not a verb. In fact, in all three examples Merriam-Webster.com supplies disuse appears as a noun and not a verb.

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    2. Yes, this is only about the adjective 'disused'.

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    3. Oops. Failed to notice that Merriam-Webster.com has a separate entry for the noun "disused", which it defines as follows:

      no longer used or occupied : abandoned · disused buildings

      And while it's true that the first example it cites appears in The Economist, there are plenty of others from American newspapers, viz.:

      "Plastic material's ubiquity in packaging has left the world literally swimming in disused bottles, bags and wraps."

      Anna Hirtenstein, Anchorage Daily News, "Oil’s dream to grow in plastics dims as companies turn to plant-based packaging," 7 Jan. 2018

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    4. Oops again. In my previous post I meant the adjective "disused", not the noun.

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    5. Dick

      "Plastic material's ubiquity in packaging has left the world literally swimming in disused bottles, bags and wraps."

      I didn't realise it when I first read your post, but this is far from typical of BrE usage. Or maybe not typical of BrE usage until now. For me, the most natural adjective would be used bottles, bags and wraps.

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    6. For me, it would be discarded bottles, bags and wraps.

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    7. Yes, this example and one I found on a dictionary site lead me to suspect that a new sense of disused may be growing — a sense that combines 'used' and 'discarded'.

      That other example was

      ‘A little dumping was noted, apparently a bag of some sort of disused building material.’

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    8. American here. Am I the only one who would call a house in such a condition "abandoned"? If it's not being maintained, even if the owner still retains ownership and eventually returns to maintaining/using it, they've still effectively left it entirely.

      And yes, I'd use discarded for trash/something just left lying out, since I don't feel "used" has the connotation of "litter, environmental pollution". A "used" bottle or bag could be immediately put in a recycling bin and used again, but a "discarded" one is just lying there serving no use but to be pollution.

      And yes, disuse as a noun sounds direct to my American ear, but not disused the adjective.

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  3. My intuition is that I could use both disused and unused with some nouns — but not with house, or with other nouns denoting buildings.

    Funnily enough, I could happily say There's a room that we don't use. It's an unused room.. But I can't imagine saying There's a house/cottage/flat/factory/warehouse that we don't use.

    I tend to interpret unused as 'not currently in use' and disused as 'no longer in use'. I would also assume — short of evidence to the contrary — that an unused thing might be used any time now, but that a disused thing will be out of use for the foreseeable future.

    I don't feel that there's a verb disuse. The -ed ending merely makes an adjective of the noun disuse. OK, the OED does list a verb disuse, but the most recent use quoted is from 1868. It just doesn't feel like a contemporary word.

    For that reason. I understand The house has been disused since then to mean 'The house has been in a neglected state since then'.

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    1. And of course, houses often fall into disrepair (especially the stately mansions described in Country Life magazine).

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  4. Given the other spelling mistakes in my communication with Lynne ("inner hears", "though it worth"), my guess is that the double-l in marvelous is probably a red herring :) That spelling has been disused around here for decades!

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    1. I thought 'inner hears' was sheer poetry!

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  5. m-w.com lists disused, but its quotations are from the Economist and Wired magazine, and are both very recent. AHD5 doesn't have an entry for it all.

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  6. Interesting. As a child, our family relocated from Scotland to the the US several times for six month periods. While in 5th grade, we were asked to write a story. I described a disused house, only to be told by the teacher that it wasn't a word and that I meant 'unused'. I knew I didn't and found a Webster's dictionary to show the different meaning. I think this would have been around 1969 in Minnesota.

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  7. I think the OED entry for the prefix dis- covers my sense of the noun disuse and the adjective disused.

    2. As a living prefix, with privative force.

    a. Forming compound verbs (with their derivative nouns, adjectives, etc.) having the sense of undoing or reversing the action or effect of the simple verb.


    So the verb disuse — which is not in my vocabulary, but underlies the noun and adjective which are — denotes not merely abstaining from using but stripping way the effects of previous use.

    For me, there's a pattern of connotation with discontinued, displaced, disgraced, disoriented, disaffected, disjointed, discouraged, discredited, disfigured, disabled... not to mention discombobulated.

    Not all of these feel like participles of verbs in actual use. I personally wouldn't say the verbs disorient, disaffect, disjoint any more than I say the verb disuse.

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    1. When I read the Guardian sentence that featured disused, I felt disoriented by the BrE/AmE divide. It's hard bridging two versions of English that are so disjointed. Sometimes, it even makes me feel quite [sic] disaffected as an immigrant.

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    2. No, you're right. The verb form of disjoint(ed) does feel wrong. A and B are disjoint with respect to each other, not disjointed. They became disjoint at some point in time, and now continue to be disjoint.

      Strange.

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  8. Welcome back, Lynne!
    I found myself inordinately disappointed that you didn't write, 'but fell into disuse in the new place.'

    But 'Disused was disused' is even better. And I learned about autological words, to boot!

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    1. You're completely right, I should have said that. So I'm stealing the idea now! Bwah-hah-hah!

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  9. Just spotted Lynne's comment about unused suggesting 'pristine'. Yes I completely agree with some nouns — but not with house.

    I can't think of a suitable one-word adjective for the concept. I'd have to say 'newly built' or 'ready for occupation' — probably both, to be sure of getting the concept across.

    To avoid connotations of pristine or neglected condition, I would say empty house rather than unused house — which conveys to me 'owned by someone who chooses to live somewhere else at present'.

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  10. Both OUP and Collins give examples on their dictionary sites. Each has about twenty examples for disused, and the same nouns turn up again and again.

    The most common collocation is disused warehouse. This confirmed my expectation that nouns for buildings especially invited the adjective. But almost as common are disused airfield and disused mine. So I thought again, and identified the favoured type of noun as one denoting a location for activity that no longer happens. Most of the locations are buildings or defined outdoor areas, but there's also a disused footpath and a disused canal.

    Of the forty-odd sentences, only one referred to something other than an abandoned location.

    ‘A little dumping was noted, apparently a bag of some sort of disused building material.’

    which does seem a little strange to me.

    The building materials apart, I personally couldn't use unused in any of the sentences. More than collocation it's a question of actual denotation.
    Disused denotes a cessation of the associated activity, with no prospect of renewal. The connotation is one of abandonment.
    Unused denotes an absence of the associated activity, with no sense of permanence. The connotation is one of surplus.

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  11. Welcome back to the blogging life Lynne! My first thought when I saw the title of this post was "railway", as for me "disused railway" is a very strong connotation. I think it even appears on Ordnance Survey maps in Ireland (or is that "discontinued railway"?).

    What's interesting about the discussion above with the participation of David Crosbie and others is the verb and adjective divide. I find the verb "disuse" very strange, as I would "disjoint" and "disaffect" (and, OK, "discombobulate", but that's jocular). However, of the numerous other adjectives originating in verbs that David lists above ("discredit", "disable", etc.), I wouldn't find any of them strange as verbs. Could it be the verb sense of "disuse" that's fallen into abeyance, rather than the whole word?

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    1. On UK Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 maps, a distinction is drawn between disused and dismantled railway lines. A railway line where the rails are still in existence, but the track is not in use, is shown on the maps with the usual solid black line indication for a railway, but with the word "disused" beside it. In this case the railway is still there, but is not used for that purpose.

      A former railway line which has had its rails removed is treated differently. It may still have its route and associated physical features such as cuttings and embankments in existence, but is no longer treated as a railway. It is indicated on maps by a dashed line with the word "dismantled" next to it.

      Although both cases could be regarded as locations for an activity that no longer happens, it seems that for “disused” to be the term used, the essential structure of the former activity – the rails – have to be still in place.

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    2. Exactly. Just what I was thinking. I'd be surprised if it weren't exactly the same in Ireland.

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  12. Is disused an appropriate word for a blog that has seen less attention than usual recently? ;-)

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    1. No, because it is still in use, albeit not very frequently!

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  13. I agree "disused" = no longer used for its original purpose, and "unused" (especially goods for sale)= not yet put in service.

    Turning, if I may, to the Guardian article on politeness you refer to, I didn't read it at the time, it did read a report in the Times about the same research. The point highlighted there which doesn't come across so strongly in your piece is that please and thank you are used less in more communal societies, the thought being that one does not need to acknowledge acts which are considered natural human cooperative behaviour. This is highlighted in this comment (of 435!) from a Brit who shared with a Chinese. Use of courtesy words seems to elicit the same strength of (and equally irrational) response as "correct grammar". Enlightened folk should probably accept there are no absolute rights and wrongs in courtesy. Sorry if that offends anyone!

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  14. I don't know whether people who subscribe to the comments are getting them by email, but there has been a bug at Blogger since GDPR (EU regulation) came into effect that prevents me from getting notification of new comments. This is less than good...I hope they fix it!

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    1. I don't subscribe to the comments, but I do click on "Notify me", and appear to have been receiving notifications as usual.

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    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    3. I rely on a RSS reader ap. For Mac-users I can recommend Leaf — but there seem to be lots of alternatives to choose from for this and all other operating systems. And they're free.

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  15. I agree with David Crosbie on Br-English usage. 'Unused' = never been used and 'disused' = was used but isn't now.

    As evidence, back when I was a child (longer ago than I'd prefer to admit), small boys still collected postage stamps. There was a thing called the Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue (Br-English spelling) which was the (sort of) Glass's Guide* to what stamps were worth. The various stamps were listed as 'used' i.e. they'd been through the post and had been franked, or 'unused' i.e. they had not been through the post, were unfranked and were more or less as they were printed. The unused ones had higher values than the used ones.

    Personally, though, I don't think I'd be all that likely to describe a house as 'disused'. A factory, perhaps, but with a house, I think I'd be more specific, e.g. 'empty' or 'unoccupied' = more or less ready to be moved into, or some variation on 'dilapidated', 'semi-derelict', 'derelict' etc depending on how far it was from being fit for immediate occupation. The one in the photo looks some way down that scale. Depending on what it's like inside, either 'dilapidated' or 'semi-derelict'.

    *Glass's Guide is a regularly produced guide to used car prices.

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  16. I'm just putting a comment in here so that I'll see future comments. Never mind!

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  17. Comments from several British (and Irish) speakers seen to add up to a clear picture of how we deploy unused on this side of the Atlantic., and how the word relates to used and unused. I think it can be seen in terms of life cycles.

    Life Cycle A before nouns denoting CONSUMABLES — as in Dru's example of stamps
    Phase 1: new
    Phase 2: in use — possibly a very brief phase
    Phase 3: used

    Life Cycle B before nouns denoting FACILITIES that are locations for specific activities
    Phase 1: new, ready for use
    Phase 2: in one of two states, either in use or unused — this phase may be repeated an indefinite number of times
    Phase 3: disused — a phase which may never be reached

    In this central usage, unused is typically
    • an adjective with no sense of being a verbal form
    attributive (before the noun) rather than predicative (after be or another 'linking verb')
    • qualifying a facility for a predictably narrow range of activities.

    The Guardian quote violates these three norms:
    Disused has at least a feel of verbal use.
    • It's used predicatively after has been.
    • A house is a facility for an unpredictably wide range of activity. (hence anther of Dru's points)

    These three uses in the Guardian quote are marginal. Even more marginal is the sense I found in Brish dictionary website and Dick Hartzell found in an American site — namely 'used up and discarded'.

    So, my question to US speakers is How do you talk about the things I call FACILITIES? Specifically, what would you say for the BrE examples?
    disused warehouse
    disused campsite
    disused Richmond church
    disused footpath
    disused railway
    disused farm buildings
    disused Underground tunnel
    disused airport
    hulks of disused ships
    disused airfield
    disused swimming pool
    disused and temporarily abandoned Sorting Office
    disused hospital
    disused part of the garden
    disused access roads
    disused factory
    disused mines
    disused nightclub
    disused salt mine
    disused quarry
    disused building, which can be converted
    In every case the meaning is 'no longer used'


    If, as Lynne suggests, the word unused has fallen out of currency there, what would you employ in its place?

    Or could it be that we cis-Atlantics are just more interested than you in abandoned warehouses and the like? That list reminds me of the climatic scenes of a great many British TV crime thrillers. The camera just loves them.

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    1. CORRECTION

      I omitted a key role of unused

      I should, have started:

      Life Cycle A before nouns denoting CONSUMABLES — as in Dru's example of stamps
      Phase 1: unused, new

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  18. David:

    Most instances of unused buildings that see in AmE are described as vacant, unoccupied, or abandoned. Maybe deserted, if the place is really out in the sticks. "Closed" would apply to mines and quarries, as well as anything else which might be reopened for its original use, particularly something with restricted access. "Mothballed" would apply to things, like ships, which are closed up in a preserved fashion awaiting later activation.

    To my friends, a falling-down abandoned farmhouse or barn is a "unique fixer-upper". :)

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    1. I know Lynne hates it if we go off on a tangent, but in BrE, a fixer-upper is the person who does the fixing up, not, as would appear from your post and from the film "Frozen", the one that needs fixed!

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    2. Kirk, British English would probably use the same adjectives to make the description more explicit. In the examples I took from the dictionary sites, the contexts seem to have made the extra description unnecessary.

      Where we differ, is that we couldn't produce the start of that first sentence of yours

      Most instances of unused buildings...

      I think I'm not untypical in feeling that a building can be disused or unused but not both. They are different states.

      I wouldn't personally apply closed to mines or quarries, but other descriptive adjectives are available.

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    3. Annabel, a tangent to your tangent, but it never fails to amuse in mixed BrE-AmE circles.

      In the days before alarm clocks, when textile mill-workers lived in streets surrounding the mill, somebody would be employed to wake up the labour force by going around knocking on the doors and windows.

      a fixer-upper is the person who does the fixing up

      The person who did the knocking up was a knocker-upper.

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    4. I use to live in the old mining area of County Durham and the miner's houses had slates on the door on which the miners would write which shift they were on so the knocker-upper would know who to knock up.

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    5. What do you call the house that needs fixing up in the UK, then - if it's not a fixer-upper? (What would the real estate agent trying to sell the place call it, that is)

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    6. "in need of some repair" (or perhaps "an old property with lots of character", an estate agent gilding the lily, not real)

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    7. I think it would listed as "Needs some modernisation", or words to that effect.

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    8. AmE, Western US:

      I'd take "vacant", "empty", or "unoccupied" to have a connotation of "but we're trying to rent or sell it right now and have some hope of success." "That old K-Mart building is empty. I wonder what they want per square foot?"

      Once it gets to the broken windows and covered in graffiti state, I would describe it as "abandoned". "When are they going to demolish that abandoned Gates Rubber plant?"

      Around here, most mines that are not in active production would be referred to as "abandoned". This is related to the fact that there are many mines that were started with great optimism and very little ore. They will never be mined again. That said, when the Climax Molybdenum Mine closed (because the price of moly dropped), there were a few caretakers, since it was expected that at some point the price would rise again. And it was referred to as "closed".

      Airfields are normally "abandoned" as well. You can find web pages that discuss abandoned airfields at some length. (Though if it still looks like an airfield from the air, it will be described on sectional charts as "closed" and have large "X"s across the ends of the runways.)

      Ships are either "mothballed" (if in a state where refurbishment is possible, though often unlikely), "shipwrecks" , or sent to the scrap yard (where they are said to become razor blades). I don't think there's a common enough state between mothballed and broken up to require a specific word.

      The shorter version is that there doesn't seem to be a single word that does the work that "disused" does in BrE.

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    9. Ships can be laid up or decommissioned as well. A hulk was an old ship converted to a non seagoing use such as coal hulk , prison hulk etc

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  19. Has anybody mentioned "Out of use", as in "The lavatories were out of use", which phrase I find useful if you don't know whether they have been permanently closed (in which case they would be disused) or just closed because nobody has come to open them today. In any case, they are not in use!

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    1. Thanks Annabel, that means I have to amend my FACILITIES life cycle.

      Phase 2 in one of three states in use, unused or out of use — the first may be followed by either or both of the others

      Mind you, I can't think of many other facilities I could describe as out of use. Those examples of warehouses, airfields, quarries etc seem too have fallen out of use; they'd outlived their usefulness. Those toilets you describe were withdrawn from use.

      Disused toilets (if they exist at a all) may be located in the middle of nowhere, or in former human habitations that have been taken over by animals.

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    2. There's a similar 'withdrawn from use' feeling to the notice one sometimes sees on a bus as it approaches the bus stop - 'Sorry, not in use' - and then swooshes past.

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    3. Bring out the paranoia, doesn't it? You feel officialdom is saying

      This bus/toilet is not for you, mate!

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    4. "Not in service" is the message that buses around here (Washington DC area) use. Same with other facilities, such as toilets, ATMs, etc.

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    5. I would call "facilites" abandoned, shuttered, or boarded up. BTW, my favorite example of such a facility is the Abandoned Pennyslvania Turnpike .

      It has a nice "life after people" kind of feel to it.

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    6. There are plenty of disused public toilets round where I live, although many of them have been repurposed into bars or restaurants or, in one case, a solicitors office. Others haven't, and have been locked out of use while awaiting their future (which may or may not include demolishing them).

      And I used "out of use" to my grandson today, commenting that he had used a different scooter both when his own was out of use (awaiting repair) and when his brother had borrowed his as *his* was out of use! Both scooters are now back in use.

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    7. I've only ever seen "not in service" on British buses. It's usually at the start or end of a day or when the service has been cancelled due heavy traffic.

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  20. How interesting. I was just thinking about this the other day. As an American, I'm not sure where I picked up the word "disused," but I do use it. However, I think I only use it to describe places, like buildings or stadiums. I would describe something like a condom as "unused" though. If there is anything "like a condom" that is.

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  21. For me, the problem is one of logic. "Has since been" is an exclusive time frame during which the house was never used, so you cannot say "has since been disused". You can say either "is now disused" or "has since been unused".

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    1. Anonymous in New Jersey08 July, 2018 14:51

      Anonymous wrote: "Has since been" is an exclusive time frame during which the house was never used, so you cannot say "has since been disused".

      While I (almost) agree with you about the definition of "has since been", from my perspective, there are two errors in your logic:

      First, I read "since" in this context as implying an event or time period that has a specific beginning – one that has followed a contrasting event or time period.

      Second, I read the prefix "dis-" as always implying that a specific thing was stopped, not that it had never happened (for which I would sometimes use "un-"). So, for me, "disused" can only refer to something which was once used but which is no longer used. And, "since been disused" must be accompanied by a reference to the thing that was stopped. The phrase "is now diused" wouldn't require that reference.

      "Unused" usually means "never been used" to my thinking, but the "since" would make it tolerably synonymous to "disused" in your example phrase (though still somewhat awkward to my ears).

      &ndash& AiNJ

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    2. I agree with AINJ - "The public gardens were closed in 2013 and the premises have since been disused" works for me.

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  22. Anonymous

    "Has since been" is an exclusive time frame during which the house was never used, so you cannot say "has since been disused".

    Well, you can — if you consider disused to be an adjective meaning 'in a sate of disuse'. The grammar is then no different from

    The house has since been empty.
    The house has since been haunted.
    The house has since been celebrated.


    and comparable to

    The house has since been an eyesore.
    The house has since been a tourist attraction.
    The house has since been mine.
    The house has since been on the market.


    For me — and, I think, for other BrE speakers — The house has since been unused. has a different meaning: 'Nobody has used the house since then'.

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  23. I have seen a semi-derelict house advertised by an estate agent (Br usage, not sure what the US equivalent is, ? realtor?) as 'Just the thing for the DIY enthusiast'.

    The buses round here say 'Sorry, I'm not in service'.

    One notice one sometimes sees which I still find odd is 'This door/toilet/facility is disabled'.

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    1. The composer Thomas Adès wrote a piece called These Premises are Alarmed after seeing a sign on a door.

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  24. I draw the distinction thus: Unused- not having been used (ie, new). Disused- previously used but not currently in use.
    Disused mine- one that has been excavated but is not now in use. An unused mine is a contradiction because by virtue of the mine being excavated, it has been "used".

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