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Illegal vs. Illicit

This article is about Illegal vs. Illicit — enjoy your reading!

  Angbeen Chaudhary  —  Grammar Tips
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As more and more laws are written, they forbid more and more things. Luckily, English has a variety of options for describing something that is against the law. Illegal, illicit, and unlawful are three options that have been in use for centuries. Do they mean different things, or should choosing illicit or illegal boil down to which is most popular?

In this article, I will compare illegal vs. illicit. I will use each of these words in at least one example sentence, so you can see them in context. Then, I will show you a way to memorize the correct usage of these words.


The word illegal originated in early 17th century: from French illégal or medieval Latin illegalis, from Latin in- ‘not’ + legalis ‘according to the law’.

Illegal as adjective:

Illegal as an adjective means contrary to or forbidden by law, especially criminal law.

He is involved in the trafficking of illegal drugs.

Illegal as noun:

The word illegal is also used as a noun which means a person living in a country without official authorization.

Illicit as adjective:

Illicit is used as an adjective which means forbidden by law, rules, or custom.

Illicit trade was carried on by collusive captures arranged between American traders and British officers.

Illegal vs. Illicit


Grayson and Tyner are having way too much fun lighting illegal fireworks.

Anna was arrested for possession of an illegal firearm.

The athlete received a penalty for an illegal hold on his opponent.

Thai transport officials said Thursday that services using private vehicles to transport passengers, such as Uber or Southeast Asia’s GrabCar, are illegal because the vehicles aren’t registered for public transport. –The Washington Post

Kenny sent Andre’s wife an illicit text message.

The politician was disgraced when an opponent publicized her illicit communication with a foreign government.

Jeremiah downloaded pirated software from an illicit website, and his computer got a virus.

The share of U.S. workers testing positive for illicit drug use reached its highest level in a decade, according to data from millions of workplace drug tests administered by Quest Diagnostics Inc., one of the nation’s largest medical-screening laboratories. –The Wall Street Journal

Illegal or illicit:

Illegal and illicit are adjectives that mean against the law. Illegal is the most commonly used, followed by illicit. You can use legal as a reminder to use illegal in most cases, since these antonyms are both the most popular choice in their family of options.

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