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I had the impression that not loaded and unloaded had different meanings:

  • not loaded: has never been loaded, or is currently not loaded
  • unloaded: has been loaded at least once, and then the load has been removed

But I do not find examples corroborating this difference, as if unloaded could also be used to mean "has never been loaded", e.g. "unloaded ship" for a brand-new cargo ship.

Is there an actual difference between them?

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  • Careful with "unloaded ship", it could be misconstrued. A new ship which has never had any cargo. The loaded the products onto the truck and then unloaded it at its destination. Generally, we load or unload some thing.
    – Lambie
    Mar 26 at 19:06

3 Answers 3

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Un- as a prefix on a verb (eg unload) refers to reversing the activity.

Un- as a prefix on an adjective merely says that the adjective does not apply, or that the reverse of the adjective applies, and does not say anything about how the item got that way.

Loaded could be an adjective or a participle, but in practice there is little difference in meaning.

But unloaded, while it could in principle be either, is almost always taken as the participle, so un- has the verbal meaning rather than the adjectival meaning. For the adjectival meaning we have to resort to a paraphrase, such as not loaded.

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    If I buy an uncooked chicken, do I 'reverse' that by putting it in the oven? Mar 26 at 13:13
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    Only if you turn the oven unoff.
    – TimR
    Mar 26 at 15:36
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    Cook is not one of the verbs (Whorf called them a "cryptotype") that can take un-: traditionally they almost all (apart from the poetic "unsay") were verbs about attaching, closing, enclosing, fastening: load is a bit of an outlier. Nowadays, because a number of things that cannot be undone in the real world can be undone in the virtual world, we have a number of new formations like undelete, unselect and unsubscribe.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 26 at 16:53
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    @nasch: The word "cooked" can be used as the past participle form of the verb "to cook", but can also be used as an adjective which is detached from any particular action. Only the latter form can accommodate "un".
    – supercat
    Mar 26 at 21:36
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    Exactly as supercat says, @nasch. Uncooked exists as an adjective (with the adjectival un-) but cannot exist in the normal world as a participle (with the verbal un-).
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 26 at 22:36
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You're right. They can be confusing, but it's more about emphasis and context than a strict grammatical rule.

Not loaded: This is a neutral statement about the current state. It simply means there's nothing loaded at the moment. This could be because it has never been loaded, or because the load was previously there and has been removed.

Unloaded: This emphasizes the action of removing the load. It implies that something was previously loaded and then emptied. It can be used for things that are typically loaded and unloaded, like ships, trucks, or even computer programs.

However, "unloaded" isn't strictly limited to things previously loaded. It can be used in some contexts to mean "not loaded" as well, especially for things that are designed to be loaded.

Think of a dishwasher. "Not loaded" means there are no dishes in it currently, regardless of whether it's been used before. "Unloaded" means there were dishes in it before, but they've been removed for cleaning.

The key takeaway is that "unloaded" implies a past state of being loaded, while "not loaded" is more neutral about the history.

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    You seem to contradict yourself slightly. You say "unloaded" isn't strictly limited to things previously loaded but then you say The key takeaway is that "unloaded" implies a past state of being loaded Mar 26 at 11:12
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    The key takeaway is still that. And, I still say "unloaded" isn't strictly limited to things previously loaded. However, it depends on the context.
    – Ali E
    Mar 26 at 11:28
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    I don't really agree with this answer, un- with a verb implies a reversal of some action, but un- with an adjective does not. To unload a gun implies taking the bullets out, but an unloaded gun simply has no bullets in it with no implication that it was ever loaded at any point. Unpermitted work never had a permit, an unsecured load was never tied down, and an unbuckled seatbelt alarm doesn't care if the belt was ever buckled to begin with. These just indicate a negative state, not necessarily a reversal to a negative state. Mar 26 at 18:58
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    In a strictly technical context, unloaded can also be neutral about the history. eg an "unloaded spring" is a technical and precise description of a spring that is not under stress. It contains no nuance about the past state of the spring.
    – jla
    Mar 26 at 23:02
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    Dishes are not unloaded from a dishwasher for cleaning, they're unloaded after already cleaned.
    – Miral
    Mar 27 at 5:10
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Both phrases can be used to mean "never was" or "was but it has been undone".

For example, if I say "The order is not boxed", I probably mean that it never was in a box. But I could mean that it was in a box and then someone took it out of the box. (Perhaps because it was the wrong kind of box, or they needed to inspect the item, or whatever. Reason is beside the point.)

Likewise, if I say, "The order is unboxed", the same two possibilities exist.

Same with "not loaded" and "unloaded". In the real world one of the interpretations may be unlikely. Like if I say, "The gun is not loaded/unloaded", maybe it's a brand new gun that was never loaded, but more likely the ammo has all been fired or removed. But if I say, "The order is not shipped", it probably has never been shipped. It's possible that it was shipped and then returned and needs to be reshipped, but probably not.

Note that "unloaded", or "un-" most anything, as a verb, means the process of undoing. If I say, "I am unloading the gun", I mean there was ammo in it and I am removing it. Because it wouldn't make sense to say that I am unloading it if it never was loaded.

If you want to make clear whether you mean "never was" versus "was but now isn't", you have to use additional words. Like, "This order was never boxed", versus "This order was boxed but has now been unboxed."

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    "Unboxing" as a verb always means that the thing was previously boxed and is now in the process of being removed from the box. "Unboxed" as a verb must similarly also mean that the unboxing occurred in the past. The trick is that "unboxed" is also valid as an adjective, where the meaning is less clear. "The order has been unboxed" is an unambiguous verbal phrase; "the order is unboxed" is an ambiguous adjectival phrase (though with slight preference given to the "previously boxed" interpretation).
    – Miral
    Mar 27 at 5:15
  • For the shipping example, it is relevant that there’s no such thing as ‘unshipping’. Shipping is a non-reversible process: once you ship something, that cannot be undone. You can return a parcel, but that’s just adding an extra instance of shipping, not undoing the shipping that already took place. This is different from loading cargo/guns, which can be reversed (i.e., unloading returns the vessel/gun to the same state it was in before it was loaded). Mar 27 at 10:15
  • @Miral Yes. It would be meaningless to say "I unboxed an order" that had never been boxed in the first place. But "The order is unboxed" is ambiguous.
    – Jay
    Mar 27 at 16:14
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    @Mari Yes, exactly – something that is unshipped has not yet been shipped, so unshipped is only an adjective, not a participle. We can use ‘boxing’ as a pure verb and say, “I boxed the item yesterday, but now I have to unbox it again” (meaning reversal of the boxing = taking it back out of the box); but that doesn’t work with ‘shipping’, so we can’t say, “I shipped the item yesterday, but now I have to unship it again” (logistically meaningless). An unboxed order can be either never-boxed or boxed-then-unboxed; an unshipped order can only be never-shipped, not *shipped-then-unshipped. Mar 28 at 9:50
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    @JanusBahsJacquet 'ship' also means 'attach to a ship', so you can unship an anchor or a mast. Mar 28 at 10:11

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