Confused Words #5: Conscious vs. Conscience

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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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