Confused Words #5: Conscious vs. Conscience

By Maeve Maddox

The similarity of the words is no doubt the reason they are confused. The first syllable is pronounced the same in both, and both contain a /sh/ sound:

conscious /KON-shus/
conscience /KON-shence/

An important difference, and one that should point a speaker to the correct word, is the fact that they function as different parts of speech.

conscious (adjective): having knowledge or awareness; able to perceive or experience something. Example of correct usage:

In rare cases, patients don’t quite drop off completely and remain just conscious enough to feel pain.

conscience (noun): the sense of right and wrong as regards things for which one is responsible. Example of correct usage:

Under the right conditions, the vast majority of people act as if they have a conscience that causes them to act ethically and look out for others’ interests.

Here are some examples of misuse on the Web:

Incorrect: When your conscious is clear does that mean you are innocent?
Correct : When your conscience is clear does that mean you are innocent?

Incorrect: He remained conscience the whole ride to Kandahar Air Field. 
Correct : He remained conscious the whole ride to Kandahar Air Field.

Contributing to the confusion between conscious and conscience is a stylistic device found in discussions of ethics and morality. Writers on these subjects often use the phrase, “a conscience decision” to mean “a decision based on conscience.” For example:

Every clinical judgment is configured within a premise of conscience. It was from this stance that a conscience decision was enacted.

This expression echoes the common idiom “to make a conscious decision,” which means, “to decide with one’s full attention.” A better choice would be “an ethical decision.”

Here’s an example of “a conscious decision” used correctly:

In the last few years, neuroscience experiments have shown that some “conscious decisions” are actually made in the brain before the actor is conscious of them.

Bottom line: If the meaning has to do with being awake, use conscious. If it has to do with knowing right from wrong, use conscience.

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