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Is there any usage preference between artifact and artefact?

My understanding was that an artifact was properly applied to physical, historical objects, while an artefact was more correct for more abstract, intangible, error-ish concepts, for example a compression artefact.

However, the couple of online sources I checked suggested that the difference was merely spelling, and that both were usable for both definitions.

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Strange. According to my Korean dictionary, there is difference between them. And they are similar to the difference of definition you suggested. –  Phonics The Hedgehog Aug 14 '11 at 22:35

6 Answers 6

up vote 18 down vote accepted

The only usage preference I'm aware of is that artefact is preferred in British English and artifact is preferred in US English, but that both are acceptable in either case.

See the Oxford Dictionary, for example.

Personally, I tend to mix them the same way you do: I collect artifacts in Tomb Raider and my compressed photos have artefacts!

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As a USian, I must say "artefact" looks like a blunder, and it would certainly jump out at me, distracting me from whatever the author is saying. –  GEdgar Aug 14 '11 at 17:05
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As a Frenchian, I must say "artifact" looks like a blunder, and it would certainly not jump out at me :-) –  Stéphane Gimenez Aug 14 '11 at 17:14
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Seems to be an artifact of two countries separated by one language! –  Andrew Grimm Aug 14 '11 at 23:41
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Offtopic: While on the topic of spelling differences that don't really exist: as someone who grew up in India with British spelling, but with computers that used American spelling, I think of people having dialogues but programs having dialog boxes. In fact, I didn't realise for many years that the "dialog" in "dialog box" was related to "dialogue" at all. Similarly for me, an "analogue" is something comparable, which bears an analogy, while "analog" is the opposite of "digital". –  ShreevatsaR Aug 15 '11 at 7:09
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To continue the @ShreevatsaR's offtopic, even in the UK dialog is the correct technical spelling when referring to a "dialog box". To use the dialogue spelling marks one as not being technically competent (or being deliberately awkward!) I suspect this is purely because of the number of US code libraries we use... –  SteveM Aug 15 '11 at 12:28

You are right. There is a slight difference in meaning, and Wiktionary makes a note:

There may be some value to distinguishing "artifact" (a man-made tool or object) from "artefact" (an false signal in data caused by the processing).

Or, in better terms, but the Science Dictionary:

Artifact: An object produced or shaped by human craft, especially a tool, weapon, or ornament of archaeological or historical interest.

Artefact: An artificial product or effect observed in a natural system, especially one introduced by the technology used in scientific investigation or by experimental error.

But they are generally used to mean "an archaelogical find".

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This is how I've always used them. –  Nick Bedford Dec 1 '11 at 2:31
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@Thursagen Strange that artefact is an artificial product. My ancient Chambers dictionary (last update 1972) does not make a distinction in meaning, merely lists them as alternative spellings, from the Latin arte (by art) and factum (made). Compare artifice, which comes from the same root, which you never see spelled as artefice. Artefact is also used as a medical term for minor brain damage, which I guess fits with the definition "a false signal in data caused by the processing". –  Mynamite Apr 7 '13 at 13:14

Artefact is the most widely used form in Commonwealth countries (excluding Canada); artifact is used in North America. There is no apparent dictionary difference in meaning between the two forms. Where I live, artefact is used both for a methodological problem and for an archaeological object. Artifact is, however, used in computing, as US spellings predominantly are in many parts of the world.

Given the other answers above, and my own comments, it would not surprise me if we are slowly seeing the development of slight variations in meaning between the two spellings, much as there is a difference in Commonwealth English between enquiry and inquiry, and also as there is between program (computing) and programme (television, theatre).

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However, the couple of online sources I checked suggested that the difference was merely spelling, and that both were usable for both definitions.

That is the case. The artifact spelling (which shows up with a red line under it, on this computer) is American while the artefact spelling is English. They are demonstrated here http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/artefact?q=artefact and here http://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/artifact

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I think they are certainly different words, however thanks to the wonders of the English language they have over time come to be homophones which in turn became regional preferences — see http://grammarist.com/spelling/artefact-artifact/.

I don't know Latin but I do have google. It would seem that artifact pertains more to the physical, whereby something of an artificial nature is something that is able to be created; artefact pertains more to the abstract, with something of an artefactual nature being something that is able to be *re*created, though it may manifest in a physical form i.e. a malformed product in a factory may be an artifact (object) of an artefact (error) in the manufacturing process. See http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-art1.htm, where both words are suggested to originate from Latin arte, however the piece claims the direct ancestor of artifice and artificial is Latin artificium, a thing made by skill or art.

To my mind:

Artifacts are typically objects, stemming from intentional or known factors and/or having historical/social value. Artefacts are typically aberrations, resulting from systemic or unknown factors, valueless or of negative value.

I work in medical imaging, where artefact identification and reduction is very important as some image artefacts mimic pathologies. In other words artefactual anomalies can mimic pathological anomalies.

Other artefacts destroy images. One method of investigating artefacts in medical imaging is to introduce artificial artefacts i.e. artificially adding noise to a digital image to test the efficacy of artefact (noise) reduction tools. An artefact that arises from time to time in medical imaging is motion artefact, resulting in image unsharpness or image blur.

One might also think of things such as cosmic background radiation as being an artifact of the big bang, with the evidence for cosmic background radiation discovered largely from from artefactual noise in radio waves. See: wikipedia Discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation. As such an artefact can become an artifact, where a physical record of this artefactual noise could become a historical artifact.

Perhaps a better distinction between the two words could be achieved through establishing a dichotomy. Perhaps an artifact could be differentiated by being a whole, a result or outcome, discrete, a perceivable thing of a definable origin (it was fashioned or produced) — only valued through context; an artefact could be differentiated by being a part, a residual, in-discrete, an abstract thing of erroneous origin — only perceived through context.

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Well, an error from image compression is certainly not the same thing as a pottery shard from ancient Babylon — so there may be value in using two different spellings when we have two different intended meanings. I would vote for these words as homophones, not geographic or regional spellings.

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This is not an answer to the question. It is a comment. –  tchrist Apr 6 '13 at 23:47

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