Easily Confused Words: Artifice vs. Artificial

Artifice and artificial are easily confused words.

The spell-check application of most word processing software programs would not catch a slip-up of these two words. Spell-check is looking for words that aren’t in its dictionary, and words that resemble words in its dictionary but are possibly spelled wrong. Spell-check isn’t perfect. It doesn’t know and can’t guess what word you wanted or what word you meant, it can only judge the words on the page. If you used words that are all spelled correctly, it gives you a pass anyway.

Autocorrect suggests words that start with the same letters. It’s suggesting what word you may want to save time, but quite often, its suggestions are pretty off base. They don’t help you out, but they do make you laugh.

Artifice (pronounced “arr-tih-fuhs”) is a noun. It means a display of trickery or strategy. It can also mean showing cleverness or skill, or putting on an act of feeling a certain way, when the person’s actual feelings may be very different.  For example, actors, lawyers, and politicians have to become masters of artifice to play characters, represent clients, or interact with audiences he/she wants to appeal to, in order to succeed at their respective jobs. Not surprisingly, the US has had actors and lawyers eventually get into politics.

Artificial (pronounced “arr-tih-fish-ull”) means synthetic or manmade, not natural. For example, processed, prepackaged food is often criticized for its overuse of artificial sweeteners and colors.

It’s also used synonymously with “fake.” The phrase “artificially enhanced” implies special effects, drugs, plastic surgery, or other means were used to improve something or someone’s appearance or performance.

The following story uses both words correctly:

Arthur missed wearing flannel shirts and drinking PBR in his garage; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d done either. 

Arthur pursued the governorship because he wanted to help advance the state where he grew up. He also wanted to be himself on the campaign trail and in office. Very quickly, though, he learned that he couldn’t do either completely on his terms. His speechwriter wrote lovely speeches, but the wording sometimes felt artificial, not blunt, not forthright, and totally honest. His consultants had worked hard to present a glossy artifice version of Arthur that the public would find the most palatable and therefore likable. Clearly their efforts had succeeded. Now they were busy working on his agenda and looking ahead to a re-election campaign. Arthur didn’t know if he wanted to do it.

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