Conscience, Conscious, and Consciousness

Commonly Confused Words

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

Although both "conscience" and "conscious" refer to the mind, these two words have distinct definitions. Learn the differences to know how to express issues of morality, and when to discuss when someone is awake.    

How to Use Conscience

The word “conscience” (pronounced KAHN-shuhns) is a noun that refers to a person’s recognition of the difference between right and wrong. As opposed to “conscious,” it refers to an aspect of someone’s personality; it is what creates a sense of guilt when we do something bad and guides us to make better decisions. 

Looking for a related adjective? “Conscientious” means careful, painstaking, or governed by conscience. A conscientious editor might be someone who goes thoroughly through each sentence to make sure there are no mistakes, motivated by a sense that this is the right thing to do, no matter how long or tedious it might be.

Popular idioms for this word include “guilty conscience” and “clear conscience,” which refer to feeling like you did something wrong or not, respectively. “On your conscious” means something that is troubling you. 

How to Use Conscious

The adjective “conscious” (pronounced KAHN-shuhs) means being awake or alert. A conscious act or decision is one done deliberately, while someone who is conscious is someone who is aware and/or engaged with what is happening around them. To be self-consciousness is to have a heightened sense of self-awareness.

In psychology, “conscious” can be a noun that refers to your awareness of yourself, including your perceptions, thoughts, and memories.

Examples

Carol's was bleeding after the accident, the injury did not seem that serious as she was conscious and talking until paramedics arrived at the scene. In this example, “conscious” expresses how the person was awake and alert following an accident, with her high levels of awareness suggesting that she was not that badly hurt. 

Ellen made a conscious decision to act according to her grandmother’s wishes. In this example, Ellen is acting deliberating to do what her grandmother has requested of her. She is aware of what these wishes are, and is behaving in accordance with them.

As he started the presentation, he began to feel self-conscious and was worried that he might mispronounce a word or get some of the information wrong. In this sentence, the presenter, under the scrutiny of his peers, is becoming more aware of the way he speaks.

Jeff’s conscience was troubled after he accidentally told his younger brother that the Tooth Fairy wasn’t real. Jeff feels bad and guilty after this revelation because it goes against his idea of what’s right. 

Mary’s conscience bothered her after she cheated on the test and she decided to make a conscious effort to study and prepare for the rest. In this example, Mary feels guilty for violating her own sense of what is right and wrong in order to get a good grade on the test, and makes a deliberate decision to work hard in preparation for future exams.

After so many years practicing and performing the same piece, playing the song from memory did not take a conscious effort. For these musicians, playing a piece of music had become so routine that they did not have to make a deliberate effort, or be particularly aware, in order to successfully play it. 

Though there didn’t seem to be strings attached, Sandra’s conscience told her not to take the money, which she worried might be a bribe. Here, Sandra’s moral compass is telling her not to accept the money; she sees a bribe as bad, and so her conscience prevents her from acting in a way which violates this view

How to Remember the Difference

To ensure you always choose the right word, think of the “science” in “conscience” — in science, researchers are trying to prove whether a hypothesis is right or wrong. You can also think of Albert Einstein, a man of science, encouraging you to do the right thing. You can also think of the additional “n” within “conscience”: this is an internal debate between right and wrong. Meanwhile, “conscious” has “ou” within it, just like the word “surroundings”: when you are conscious, you are aware of your surroundings.

What About Consciousness?

Derived from “conscious,” “consciousness” is a noun that refers to the state of being awake and aware, or the state of understanding and realizing something.