Conscientious vs. Conscious: How to remember the difference

Are you trying to be careful or aware?

Finding the right words for certain situations is a crucial part of writing. How else will you get your message across? Unfortunately, finding the right words is easier said than done! There are so many overlapping meanings and similar-sounding words. A good example is the word conscientious versus the word conscious.

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The short answer is that conscientious means being careful and vigilant while conscious means to literally be alert and awake.

These two words look similar, but they are not interchangeable. You should use conscientious in terms of desire and performing deliberate actions and conscious in terms of physically being awake or simply aware of something.

However, there is more to these words than meets the eye. Let’s take a more in-depth look at their definitions, common examples, and how to remember the difference.

Definition of conscientious

The definition of conscientious is this: to be very careful about doing what you are supposed to do and concerned about doing something correctly. This makes the word an adjective that can be applied to describe nouns. Let’s use this word in some examples to clarify what it means!

  • #1 By measuring the liquid in each test tube multiple times during a science experiment, you are being conscientious.

If you are setting up a science experiment, you want it to go correctly. This means that you go out of your way to measure the liquid in each test tube, even beyond the normal expectations. This is an example of being conscientious!

  • #2 She is a conscientious worker who completes every task before the deadline.

This example includes a worker who makes sure that every task she has is completed before the deadline. This makes her a conscientious worker because she is being vigilant and careful about her deadlines.

  • #3 “Good luck is the willing handmaid of an upright and energetic character, and conscientious observance of duty.” — James Russel Lowell

James Russel Lowell is a famous American poet, and this is a quote that happens to include our chosen word! In this example, James is talking about how good luck comes to those who have good character and who observe their duties. The phrase “conscientious observance of duty” refers to someone being extremely careful and aware of the duties they must perform.

This has hopefully provided you with a working idea of the word conscientious and when to use it! Now, let’s move on and define the next word.

Definition of conscious

These are the two most popular definitions of the word conscious: 1. having mental faculties not dulled by sleep, faintness, or stupor, and 2. perceiving, apprehending, or noticing with a degree of controlled thought or observation.

This essentially means that the word conscious just means to be aware. It is often used in terms of being awake or asleep, but that is not the only way to use it! You can be literally conscious the moment you wake up, but you can also be conscious and aware of a variety of things. Let’s look at some examples!

  • #1 To be or to feel self-conscious.

We’ve all heard this phrase before: self-conscious, which means to be overly aware or worried about yourself. This takes the definition of conscious and applies it to your own body. When you suddenly notice how you are standing or how you look, you are becoming conscious of your appearance.

  • #2 When he was admitted to the hospital, he was fully conscious.

This example uses the literal meaning of the word conscious. To be fully conscious means to be fully awake and aware of your surroundings. That’s why the word unconscious means to be asleep! Just remember that although this is the literal meaning of the word, it is not the only way to use it.

  • #3 “Without wearing any mask we are conscious of, we have a special face for each friend.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

This last example uses the more figurative definition of the word. Mr. Holmes is referencing being aware or conscious of wearing a mask, demonstrating how one can be conscious of something without needing to be awake or asleep.

Can they be used in the same way?

There is a lot of overlap between the words. Conscientious means to be careful, while conscious means to be aware. Although these two may seem the same, one is typically better suited than the other. A good rule of thumb is to substitute the words with common synonyms and see which one works better.

Sometimes, you may see these words used interchangeably. The best thing to do is to decide what the goal of the sentence is. If it is to demonstrate someone being careful or cautious, use conscientious. If it is to demonstrate someone being aware or awake, use conscious.

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