Friday, October 09, 2009

artefact versus artifact

I just wrote these two sentences in my paper:

"There is some tendency for these harsher critiques of the family members to be directed more towards female members of the family than male ones. However, this may by an artefact of the scenarios more than anything else."

And old MS Word underlined "artefact" and wants me to spell it "artifact". So off to Google I went and there seems to be no consensus on this. It could be a UK/US spelling difference, though there's evidence that both forms are used in both nations. However, to me, I don't think of these as the same word, though it's hard for me to pinpoint the difference.

If an archaeologist digs up a piece of pottery, that's a definite artifact with an "i" in there. But, well, that's not the kind of artifact I am talking about in my sentence. This sort of an artefact is an accidental construction of other features. My sentence example is a better explanation than my definition here.

What are your thoughts? I expect people to have opinions on the spelling, but what about the difference in meaning? Are these really two different, though related, words? Or is my inability to articulate the difference between an artifact and an artefact evidence they're really the same thing?

My guess right now is that these are the same word, but that I've encountered this "accidental feature" use of artefact among stuff written by people who happened to use the artefact spelling. It's a probabilistic meaning for the linguist readers.


writtenwyrdd said...

Isn't 'artefact' used when there is an anomaly in a medical reading, as in "there was an artefact in your EKG, Mr. Brown."?

Sarah Laurenson said...

Never hoid of it. Sorry to be of no use, but there you go.

pjd said...

For real? You're asking us?

I actually use art[i|e]fact in the meaning you've pointed out (the accidental occurrence meaning), but only spoken. And people give me screwy looks when I do.

If I were to have written it, I'd have spelled it with an i, never figuring there could be an alternate spelling. I do like the e version, though, and I may use it. See, learning is frequently an artefact of my blog surfing.

Mommy said...

archaeologists study the material remains of a culture. it could be anything from a pottery shard to a piece of dental floss. archaeologists like finding trash piles, fire pits and the stain wood posts leave in the ground. it doesn't need to be something purposefully left behind. I'm not sure if this contributes anything meaningful to the conversation... i have never heard of your "artefact" or seen it spelled that way.

Precie said...

Well, when push comes to shove, I'm with you on this. Looks like there's no clear winner, except that "artefact" is etymologically older.

And here's one way of differentiating your usage: I associate "artifact" specifically with concrete objects, akin to "exhibit" in legal terms. What you are talking about in your sentence is not concrete but rather a record of experience.

I'm not particularly supported by any dictionary. But I'm more inclined to use artefact the way you do.

And see--Pete's usage at the end of his comment does seem to bear out the distinction. I wouldn't say "artifact" in that sentence because the lesson isn't a concrete object. But it's still a human construct we've collected.

sylvia said...

Well, oh. I thought it was two different words. I was totally with you that the issue was a cultural artefact and the item was an artifact from an archeological dig.