He looked at the disaster in his office and, without being aware of it, patted the pocket where he kept his cigars.

He looked at the disaster in his office and [adverb] patted the pocket where he kept his cigars.

I'm looking for an adverb meaning "without being aware of doing" that would fit in the above sentence and make the two sentences mean the same thing both literal meaning-wise and connotation-wise.

More specifically, if the word has the correct meaning and connotations, then it should also do the same for the following sentences.

She glanced at the children playing in the park and, without being aware of it, drew a smile.

She glanced at the children playing in the park and [adverb] drew a smile.

Some possible choices I found so far but aren't quite satisfied with are:

  • Unconsciously (not quite satisfied with the connotation "without consciousness")
  • Unknowingly (not quite satisfied with the connotation "foolishly")
  • Unintentionally (not quite satisfied with the connotation "accidentally")
  • Instinctively (not satisfied with the connotation of "naturally/innately")

I would really appreciate any suggestions or counterpoints that could persuade me otherwise on the above three choices. Thank you very much in advance.

  • I'd suggest "unawares/unaware" adverb which has the meaning of "by surprise, without being expected".
    – Alex TheBN
    May 23, 2020 at 10:33
  • Unknowingly doesn't imply foolishly, but that the person's action had an effect which they were genuinely unaware of at the time. I agree with James that unconsciously fits best. May 23, 2020 at 11:07
  • For the smile example, "automatically" or "reflexively" might fit. But you are misusing the idiom "drew a smile" The correct use is "the children drew a smile from her.", not that she drew a smile. May 23, 2020 at 17:08

2 Answers 2


You dislike 'Unconsciously' because you dislike the inference that it means 'without consciousness', but I think you misconstrue what that means. In your example it means he performs the action of patting his pocket without the action rising to the level of his concious mind, not that the action itself lacks a consciousness.

As a British English speaker I'd use 'subconsciously' in both your examples: he's doing something he'd do consciously, but it's so automatic that it didn't even get to his consciousness. 'Unconsciously' to me, adds the meaning that he didn't necessarily want to pat his pocket eg: 'He unconsciously gave away the location of his cigars'

The OED gives:

"Operating or existing (just) below the level of conscious perception or control" for subconsciously' and

"In an unconscious manner; without conscious action, effort, thought, or awareness; unknowingly" for 'unconsciously'.

So either would convey you meaning.


Unconsciously or subconsciously would be my first choices. In these contexts they don't suggest "asleep", but "without being aware of the reason". You can do something "unconsciously" and later know that you did it, but you didn't consciously decide to do it.

Alternatives that you might consider:

"Absent-mindedly": When applied to an action it is rather similar in meaning to "subconsciously". It works better for the "patted his pocket absent-mindedly" rather than the smiling example

"Unaware" or "Unawares" (from comment) this is an adverb (not a plural noun, despite the form) It is used to mean "without being aware"

I blessed them unaware (from an old poem)

In the smiling example, it might be easiest to say nothing. Most smiles are done unconsciously. "Instinctively" also works well for the smiling example, since smiles are instinctive.

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