Sunday, March 26, 2023

MLP: A subconscious bias against the unconscious

| February 9, 2023 1:00 AM

Pet peeve: “She unconsciously scowls every time he approaches her.”

“Unconsciously?” So she’s unconscious, passed out in a coma-like pose … How then can she scowl at him? What an impact this guy must have on women!

Mrs. Language Person does not approve. If to be unconscious one has lost consciousness, then conscious thoughts or actions are simply impossible. That makes sentences combining the two quite nonsensical.

If one means that actions or behaviors are done without deliberation, without conscious thought, then the term should be “subconscious,” as in below the consciousness. One is still awake and upright, after all! Not unconscious.

That’s it; grammar gods satisfied.

Except, learned your MLP much to her chagrin, when it’s not.

English, as Miss Linguistics Person (a close and better linguistically educated relative of your MLP) often admonishes, is an evolving thing. The words we use and how we use them changes across time. Cases in point: Chaucer (and thank the linguistic gods for that!) and Shakespeare (sniff, sniff).

Merriam-Webster and (woe to MLP, what bane of language is the internet! Scourge! Ruination!) do indeed define “unconscious” as “having lost consciousness.” Yet before MLP declared victory she begrudgingly conceded definition 2. not knowing or perceiving; not aware. Lexicographic example: An unconscious bias.

No! MLP (and — drum roll, please — Mr. Editor Person Emeritus, i.e., Mr. MLP) could not be wrong about this! Literalism must win the day! Woe are they.

Psychologists agree with definition 2, it seems. It’s all Freud’s fault.

According to Dr. Craig Miller, senior editor of mental health publishing at Harvard Health, “the term ‘unconscious’ or ‘unconscious mind’ is most closely associated with Freud and psychoanalysis, but the general notion predates Freud by hundreds if not thousands of years. For Freud, the idea of memories, feelings, and other mental content outside conscious awareness … was a key element of the theory he was developing to explain the causes of mental disorders … Freud theorized that hidden mental contents (making people ill) had been ‘repressed’ and made unconscious.

“As for the term ‘subconscious,’ Freud used it interchangeably with ‘unconscious’ … eventually he stuck with the latter term to avoid confusion.”

How ironic, as using the latter term, in conflict with its literal meaning synonymous with having fainted, has only deepened the confusion. Thanks a lot, Dr. Freud.

As a general rule, writes Miller in a Harvard Health blog, in psychological and medical literature “unconscious” is preferred to “subconscious” when referring to unperceived thought.

Before you claim victory to misuse of “unconscious,” Readers, take note: Neuroscientists find the entire concept of “an unconscious” to be a problem, because the terminology implies that the unconscious is a place, an anatomical location, as it were, in the brain. Today, most psychoanalysts don’t think of the unconscious as a neuroanatomical structure, like Freud did. However they do use it to describe the idea that much of mental life happens without our being fully aware of it, unless we are paying conscious (i.e. deliberate) attention to it.

So, Dear Readers, what say you? Are you with Freud, or MLP? What is your subconscious perception of the unconscious?

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Mrs. Language Person and Sholeh Patrick are columnists for the Hagadone News Network. If you’re conscious, email them at

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