Subconscious vs. Unconscious: What’s The Difference?

Subconscious vs. UnconsciousA reader asked me to discuss subconscious and unconscious, clarifying the implications of prefixes sub and un.

First of all, conscious means to be awake, aware and responding to one’s surroundings.

A prefix is a letter or a group of letters that appears at the beginning of a word and changes its original meaning.

The prefixes sub and un have distinctly different meanings:

sub: under or below
substandard, subcommittee
Substandard living conditions contribute to poor health.
The subcommittee will investigate the cost of the proposal.

un: the opposite or reverse of
unlike, unwearable
She is so unlike her twin sister in temperament.
The soaked jacket was unwearable.

Your subconscious (noun) is the part of your mind just below awareness; a subconscious (adjective) thought is one of which you are not fully aware but that might influence your feelings or actions:

Trevor has a subconscious fear that his girlfriend, Jenna, will break up with him if he goes fishing this weekend.
At a subconscious level, Jenna hopes her boyfriend, Trevor, will go fishing this weekend so she can use it as an excuse to break up with him.

To be unconscious means to lose consciousness.

When Trevor fell in the fishing boat and hit his head, the jolt left him unconscious for a few seconds.
When Jenna learned that Trevor’s fall had left him temporarily unconscious, she couldn’t be mad at him for going fishing — or use it as an excuse to break up with him.

Our language is full of prefixes: anti (antidepressant), bi (bilateral), dis (disassemble), extra (extracurricular), infra (infrared), inter (interoffice), multi (multicolored), non (nonfiction), out (outperform), over (overpay), para (parasailing), post (postgraduate), pre (precondition), re (reintroduce), under (underestimate).

Note that none of these words created with a prefix requires a hyphen.

My upcoming Grammar for People Who Hate Rules (Yes, it will be out in August!) has a list of words with these and other common prefixes, most of which don’t require a hyphen.

I appreciate getting blog topic suggestions from readers. Chances are that a question for one likely is a question for others. What do you find puzzling about word or punctuation use?

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)