Grammar Moses: My unconscious bias toward 'unconscious' is showing

Updated 11/16/2019 4:37 PM

By Jim Baumann


We recently ran a story with this headline: "Workshop will address unconscious bias."

That didn't sit right with reader Gail Frei.

"In the dinosaur days when I went to school, 'unconscious' meant having lost consciousness (passed out, etc.) Should the headline not have read 'subconscious,' meaning below the level of consciousness, existing but unaware?

Good question, Gail. You even had me doubting myself.

I consulted one of my favorite books, "Garner's Modern American Usage," for Bryan Garner's thoughts on this.

He writes, and I paraphrase, that both words are most commonly adjectives, where "unconscious" has a few meanings and "subconscious" one.

"Unconscious" could mean unaware, as in "Buddy was unconscious of his body odor's effect on his co-workers."

It also could mean something not perceived by oneself, as in "Buddy's unconscious dismissal of his co-workers' ideas."

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Or it could mean something not done on purpose, as in "Buddy unconsciously took the last bagel during the meeting."

"Subconscious" as an adjective means not fully or wholly conscious, as in "a subconscious motive."

There is one thing that is very clear from this discussion so far: No one wants to work with Buddy.

As for whether "unconscious" or "subconscious" works better in our headline, I'm of a mind that both work.

When that happens, I consult other authorities. calls them synonyms but adds that "unconscious" is the more scientific term.

I popped "unconscious bias" and "subconscious bias" into Google's Ngram Viewer and found that "subconscious bias" didn't appear in books until just before 1900, but "unconscious bias" has been kicking around since 1810.


And the phrase "unconscious bias" always has been significantly more popular in books.

So, Gail, let's call this one a draw. You go your way, and I'll stick with the more popular usage.

'Unconscious' bonus

An interesting thing I learned in researching this is that as nouns "subconscious" and "unconscious" are synonymous, both meaning the part of the human psyche that is inaccessible to consciousness. In professional circles, psychologists tend to use "unconscious" as a noun; in lay terms we tend toward "subconscious."


In responding to a news story about a driver who struck and killed a man working along the roadway, reader David Borck writes: "This was a terrible event ... but it was an ACCIDENT, not a 'crash.' Tell me if I am wrong."

David, you are wrong. I know that sounds harsh, but you told me to say that.

A "crash" can be one thing hitting something either stationary or moving. A collision more specifically is two objects in motion striking one another.

If it turns out the driver was drunk or high, I wouldn't call it an "accident." We -- and those who enforce the laws -- view driving impaired as a willful act and, therefore, not an "accident."

Convincing argument

I'm sure I sound like a giant prescriptivist here, but I believe there is an obvious distinction between "convince" and "persuade."

I hear many people use "convince" when "persuade" is appropriate but rarely hear someone do the converse. I heard it on NPR the other day, though, so it got my dander up.

It's simple. To "persuade" is to get someone to act a certain way: "He persuaded his mom to give him the keys to her new car for prom night."

To "convince" is to get someone to think a certain way: "He convinced his mom that he wouldn't wrap her new car around a lightpost."

News Editor Michelle Holdway's mnemonic for that is "Convince of fact, persuade to act." I love it!

Write -- and drive -- carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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