Conscience, Conscious, and Consciousness

Commonly Confused Words

conscious and conscience
This young man apparently has a guilty conscience. Tara Moore/Getty Images

The words conscience and conscious both have to do with the mind, but one is a noun, the other is an adjective, and they're not interchangeable. 

Definitions

The noun conscience refers to a person's recognition of the difference between right and wrong. (A related word is conscientious, an adjective meaning careful, painstaking, or governed by the dictates of conscience.) 

The adjective conscious means being awake, aware, or alert.

A conscious act is a deliberate act.

The noun consciousness means the state of being awake and aware, or the state of understanding and realizing something. (The nouns consciousness and self-consciousness are both derived from the adjective conscious.)

Also, see the usage notes and idiom alerts below.

Examples

  • Huck's conscience made him feel guilty for helping Jim.
  • "After 1918 it was never quite the same again. Snobbishness and expensive habits came back, certainly, but they were self-conscious and on the defensive. Before the war, the worship of money was entirely unreflecting and untroubled by any pang of conscience. The goodness of money was as unmistakable as the goodness of health or beauty, and a glittering car, a title or a horde of servants was mixed up in people's minds with the idea of actual moral virtue."
    (George Orwell, "Such, Such Were the Joys . . .." The Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays, and Reportage. Harcourt, 1984)
  • "A student who perceives college as a place for parties and socialization and pays little or no attention to schoolwork would never earn the good grades earned by a conscientious student who pays more attention to schoolwork than parties."
    (Martin O. Edu, "Vision, Determination, Self-Leadership, and Time Management." The Black Student's Guide to Graduate and Professional School Success, ed. by Vernon L. Farmer. Greenwood, 2003)
  • Alfonso made a conscious effort to act according to his father's wishes.
  • "She drew her head out of the room quickly and closed the door and leaned against it, frowning. The light outside was not so bright but she was conscious that the sun was directly on top of her head, like a silver bullet ready to drop into her brain."
    (Flannery O'Connor, "Greenleaf." Everything That Rises Must Converge, 1965)
  • "He looked at her in a close, intimate way that made her self-conscious. She caught herself swinging her leg nervously, like a pendulum, and stopped."
    (Alice Elliott Dark, "In the Gloaming." The New Yorker, 1994)
  • "I have not slept soundly for many years. Not since the war when I was knocked out for two days have I really lost consciousness as a child loses consciousness in sleep and wakes to a new world not even remembering when he went to bed."
    (Walker Percy, The Moviegoer. Alfred A. Knopf, 1961)

Usage Note

"To remember the spelling of the word that has to do with right and wrong, picture Albert Einstein--a physicist concerned with both science and philosophy--nagging you to do the right thing. The man of science appeals to your conscience."
(Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl's 101 Misused Words You'll Never Confuse Again.

St. Martin's Griffin, 2011)

Idiom Alerts

  • The expression on one's conscience refers to something that causes a person to feel guilty.
    "Flying, for me, is utterly exhausting, for the simple reason that it is my duty to keep the plane in the air by sheer force of my mind. . . . If I lose concentration for even a minute, the massive metal crate will surely plummet earthwards and hundreds of tragic deaths would be on my conscience. Well, if we could find my conscience, which will definitely have been ripped backwards through my arsebum on impact."
    (Dawn French, Dear Fatty. Arrow Books, 2009)
  • To have a clean or clear conscience means to have no feelings of guilt: "No pillow is as soft as a clear conscience." A clear conscience is the opposite of a guilty conscience.
    "He had honestly done his best. So far his conscience was clear, but as he reviewed the past in detail, his best seemed a very shoddy compromise."
    (John Buchan, The Half-Hearted, 1900)

    Practice

    (a) "Joey began to receive stares. and he felt he might be the subject of unseemly gossip. Perhaps it was his guilty _____—a condition that exasperated him further because he believed he had done nothing wrong but bolt like a scaredy."
    (William H. Gass, Middle C. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

    (b) "We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one language and into another without being _____ of the effort. At school, in a given situation, we might respond with 'That's not unusual.' But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily said, 'It be's like that sometimes.'"
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)

    (c) "When I regained _____, my face was wet with tears. I cannot say how long I had been unconscious, for I no longer had any means of telling the time."
    (Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1871)

    Scroll down for answers below:

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Answers to Practice Exercises: 

    (a) "Joey began to receive stares. and he felt he might be the subject of unseemly gossip. Perhaps it was his guilty conscience—a condition that exasperated him further because he believed he had done nothing wrong but bolt like a scaredy."
    (William H. Gass, Middle C. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

    (b) "We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort. At school, in a given situation, we might respond with 'That's not unusual.' But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily said, 'It be's like that sometimes.'"
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969)

    (c) "When I regained consciousness, my face was wet with tears. I cannot say how long I had been unconscious, for I no longer had any means of telling the time."
    (Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1871)