1. ... it is too broad in asking about a limitless number of subjects.

  2. ... it is too broad in asking about an unlimited number of subjects.

  3. ... it is too broad in asking about an illimited number of subjects.

Which one, if any in particular, one should prefer, (1), (2) or (3)? If there exist one, can anyone explain the reason why—i.e., good english, more semantically proper and so on?

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    Illimited is the assimilated form of in- + limited. We ended up using un- + limited instead, but there's no real reason why we use un- rather than in-. You just have to memorize it. – snailplane Dec 6 '13 at 15:27

As you rightly suspect, there isn’t a strong semantic difference between “unlimited”, “limitless” and “illimited”. There is, however, a sizeable difference in their respective commonnesses (that is, the degree to which each can be considered widely used).

The usual way that a speaker of any language evaluates the commonness of a given word is largely intuitive, and refers instantly to all the words that person has ever heard without a conscious thought. That is to say I could never tell you exactly how many times I’ve heard or seen any one of these words, but I can state with absolute certainty that I’ve encountered “unlimited” much more often than “limitless”, and only seen “illimited” a handful of times while reading very old texts, and while reading legal documents. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard “illimited” said in conversation.

A major difficulty in learning a language without immersion—without years of being inundated with its vocabulary on a daily basis—is that this intuition for a word’s rightness (which extends beyond how common or rare it is) will take a long while of speaking words that sound a little strange to your audience.

The good news is that you are by no means alone in this struggle. It’s something that speakers at every level of every language encounter, especially the more they wish to be understood by more people or by a specific group of people who have a completely different cultural context and/or linguistic background.

For instance, when I lived in the UK, I had to be careful when talking about my pants.

One tool I’ve grown fond of is Google Ngram Viewer. It can be a guide in answering questions like
“how often does ‘illimited’ appear in published works over the years?”
(source: static.ow.ly)

Notice that there are several zeros before the numbers on the left. That means that even at the peak of its popularity, this word was occurring at a proportion of only six times for every ten million words.

This leads nicely to another question, namely
“how often does ‘illimited’ appear compared to ‘limitless’ or ‘unlimited’?”
(source: static.ow.ly)

Because these other two words appear so much more often, the hills and valleys of the previous graph have been flattened by the scale of the display. This is similar to the fact that if you were as much bigger than the Earth as you are bigger than a billiard ball, the Earth would exceed the World Pool-Billiard Association’s specification for the smoothness of a billiard ball.

The upshot of all this is that “unlimited” is the word that more people use in more instances. That means that it is probably understood by more people, and in the broadest sense of our three choices. If you wanted to sound a little more poetic, or felt it captured the specifics in question, you might choose “limitless” instead. If you wanted to convey (or mock) legalistic authority or an archaic tone, you might select “illimited”.

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I see that "illimited" is indeed in Merriam-Webster's dictionary, but I have never heard the word before. I think it is pretty obscure.

So the real choice is between "limitless" and "unlimited". I think in general people use "limitless" for uncountable things and "unlimited" for countable. Like, "I looked out over the limitless expanse of sky ..." versus "There are an unlimited number of ways to ..." But I don't have a reference on that, that's just my gut feel.

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  • In the online Merriam's, it relegated in the unabridged version, not in the free version. I do not think that this is a "living word" in the language today. – Kaz Dec 7 '13 at 1:59
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    Descriptive dictionaries list many words that are non-standard. M-W lists irregardless, brang, and brung, for example; most people would agree that all three are substandard though. Dictionaries don't determine what constitutes a valid word. That's consensus rather. You'll find many other slang and colloquial words in M-W. – Giambattista Dec 8 '13 at 21:49
  • @JohnQPublic +1, except that I personally prefer "non-standard" to "substandard". (I think "substandard" has a bit of a negative connotation that I want to avoid.) – snailplane Dec 8 '13 at 21:53
  • I should not have used the word substandard. I agree regarding the negativity it can construe, although I hadn't meant it that way; but I also wasn't referring to any words used by anyone other than me. I wouldn't ever refer to someone's English as substandard though. – Giambattista Dec 9 '13 at 6:51
  • Am plesed to here my language "substandard" you will calling it not. :) – Jay Dec 9 '13 at 17:51

To be perfectly honest, I'd use infinite here for effect. This Ngram shows that many other speakers would do the same.

Of your choices, however, to this one, American, native speaker's ear, I'd probably use number two, unlimited. Number one--limitless--is fine too though. Other speakers might prefer that. This isn't a matter of good English.

There's not much difference in usage in BrE and AmE

I'm not at all suggesting that illimited is not a word--although I've never heard a native speaker use it in my own, anecdotal experience--but I'd recommend against it. From the first three Ngram results, illimited is barely visible. The fourth shows just how uncommon it is. Even if I extend the timeframe back to 1500, illimited is still extremely rare. I personally don't accept it as a valid word, nor does my browser's spell-check, but that's not to say other speakers would object.

As far as unlimited and limitless go, they both mean infinite or any number of possibilities, so I don't think that either of those is incorrect. That choice is a matter of style.

If there exist one, can anyone explain the reason why—i.e., good English, more semantically proper and so on?

As I've said above, semantically, there is no difference between these words. If we're talking about writing, rhythm is important. So too is the voice you're writing in. And you must consider your diction throughout the entire body of work.

So in other words, the one you choose should be based on how they sound. Do the words convey the intonation/inflection that you'd like them too? Does it flow, and are you writing in the proper register for your audience? Those are the main reasons that you'd choose one over the other. In all but the most formal writing, you want your writing to reflect your own natural speech, so use that which you're most comfortable with and over which you've got the best command.

Also, have you used one of those words elsewhere? That'd be the other reason to choose one over the other. You may not want to say unlimited twice, in other words.

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  • This seems like a good answer to me. I wonder why it was downvoted. – snailplane Dec 9 '13 at 7:40
  • Thank you. It would be nice if people left comments, as some do. I don't take very much [ersonally; it'd just be nice to be able to either improve my answer, or to perhaps correct any errors (typographical or logical) that I've made. I understand the desire to remain anonymous though – Giambattista Dec 9 '13 at 8:28

What are the complete sentences? You have nonstandard grammar here unrelated to your word choice concern:

Is it too broad { to ask | to be asking | *in asking } about an unlimited number of subjects?

Second, the word illimited doesn't exist in standard English. (Which is not to say a native speaker wouldn't use it; it's definitely nonstandard though.) The Merriam-Webster's online dictionary evidently has an entry for this word in their unabridged version. Nothing in www.oxforddictionaries.com. Even if this was once a word, it is no longer a "living" word.

Are you, by chance, translating this from another language? Spanish evidently has illimitado; the English counterpart is unlimited. The prefix doesn't translate directly. Do not guess at English based on similarities; people won't understand you, or worse, you can hit upon a word that has a meaning you don't intend.

Although "limitless" and "unlimited" fit here grammatically (and are practically synonyms), you have a semantic problem. The sentence isn't sound.

You cannot actually speak about a limitless number of subjects. If you stop speaking, then you have thereby put a limit on how many subjects you spoke about. If you speak all day about four hundred subjects, until you are exhausted, then that was your limit.

A limit is some rule or obstacle which stops you from speaking about any number of subjects you want. The limit comes either from you, or it is externally imposed.

A sentence like "his ability to talk about just about anything seems limitless" makes sense. On the other hand, "can I say a limitless number of things to you" is comical; it would have been a good line for Peter Sellers' character in the 1968 film, The Party.

Essentially, you cannot be inquiring about a limit, when you're referring to a limit that comes from yourself! And in a sentence like "can I speak about an unlimited number of subjects", and related sentences of the same sort, "unlimited" has the interpretation of "not limited by me: I intend to speak on and on until I drop from exhaustion".

If you are inquiring about an imposed limit, it is much better to directly ask what the limit is:

How many subjects can I ask about, before the question is considered too broad?

What constitutes "too broad"? How many subjects can I ask about?

{ Is there | Does there exist } { a | some } limit on the number of subjects that I can ask about which is considered too broad? If so, what is the limit?

Note: can use such sentences like "can I say an unlimited number of things" if it is clear from the prior context that you're talking about an outside limit.

Humorous conversation:

A: Can I say an unlimited number of things?

B: I hardly think so; you will get hungry and tired, and then stop, thereby reaching your limit.

A: Haha! No, I mean, is there a limit on how many things I can talk about in this speech, or can I say an unlimited number of things?

B: Ah, now that you spoke properly, I can stop pretending I didn't understand! Yes, you can speak about a maximum of three topics.

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