My dictionary defines artificial as made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally, especially as a copy of something natural.

But since any manufactured substance can only be created from something that has natural origins, can anything simply be described as artificial?

Are we not restricted, in the use of the word artificial, to placing it as an adjective, in front of nouns? We talk, for example, about artificial fibres, meaning things like nylon, or polyester, which do not occur naturally as fibres as do wool or cotton. Similarly someone may have an artificial limb.

But placing a notice on a food package saying nothing artificial contained here I would suggest is nonsense, since everything in the world is either extracted, manufactured, or contrived through chemical process from a naturally occurring substance of some sort.

Can artificial be used alone without further qualification?

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    I don't see a problem. I could take naturally occurring potatoes, mash them up and then reconstruct the mashed potato back into an artificial potato made entirely of naturally occurring potato. The term qualifies the object not its ingredients.
    – Marv Mills
    Dec 19, 2014 at 10:23
  • @MarvMills Which I think is the point I am making in my question. But last night I had a bag of potato crisps on which was written 'nothing artificial contained'. I don't see how it can make sense. Since in a broad scope nothing in the world can be 'artificial'.
    – WS2
    Dec 19, 2014 at 10:24
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    @MarvMills So the manufacturers were not being honest. Everything about the potato crisps was 'artificial'!
    – WS2
    Dec 19, 2014 at 10:31
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    I thought you were asking the question: 'Can artificial be used alone without further qualification?' I mustn't have got the hang of this site yet. Dec 19, 2014 at 11:47
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    The situation with usages of 'artificial' is more complex than a matter of a few broad-brush attempts made by dictionaries to nail down the sum total of senses. As someone has said, "[W]e don't call steel 'artificial wood' just because it has replaced wood as a construction material (for ships and building etc)." Dictionary definitions rarely warn one of the idiosyncracies in usage rendering some perfectly plausible framings non-idiomatic. Dec 19, 2014 at 12:06

4 Answers 4


You mentioned food products as an example. 'No artificial ingredients,' or 'all natural' come to mind.

These terms are unregulated by the FDA in America (only 'organic' has real meaning on packaging in these terms).

So in this sense, these words are meaningless when used in advertising or on packaging. I believe that answers part of your question.

The meaning, beyond that, is a matter of personal opinion. As such an ambiguous term, in conversations in which a shared understanding of artificiality is necessary, I recommend specifically pursuing a mutual understanding of what the word should mean for the purposes of that conversation.

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    'Context is everything' as a contributor is fond of saying. I like 'all words are infinitely polysemous'. Dec 19, 2014 at 11:45

Yes it can be use a alone, but the exact meaning will depend on context and in some cases it may be ambiguous.

For example in British (and I expect European Union) food labelling law, an ingredient is considered artificial if it includes a chemical compound that was created other than in a living thing or natural process.

  • If the compound is identical to one from a living thing, it can be called "nature identical", but not "natural".
    – bdsl
    Dec 19, 2014 at 11:37
  • I don't know anything about food-labelling law. But I am fairly certain that British law, in this regard, follows EU regulation entirely.
    – WS2
    Dec 19, 2014 at 12:05

"Nothing is created or destroyed, but merely transformed." who said that?

It is clear that anything comes from what we already have in nature. Transformation (generally via chemical processes) is what characterises something from being natural or artificail The degree of transformation can give rise to debates to the fact that someting is closer to being natural or artificial, but still the concept holds.

'Natural, organic, non-artificial' are all catchwords which marketing strategies use and abuse....well beyond their literal meanings.

  • On that basis you could argue that the potato crisps were entirely 'artificial', since the potatoes have been harvested, sliced, treated with various other ingredients, had heat applied to them whilst placed in oil, and finally packed in a paper bag. On your definition that produces something quite artificial.
    – WS2
    Dec 19, 2014 at 10:28
  • @WS2 - my grandfather used to grow vegetables, we used to eat them, they were 100% natural. We now live in an industrialized world and they try to convince us that the food that they produce is more natural than artificial (chemically treated). The extent to which this is true, we really can't tell.. but we tend to buy more 'natural, organic' food!! That's it!!
    – user66974
    Dec 19, 2014 at 10:34
  • 'Organic food' is now popular among a lot of people in Britain, especially since Prince Charles went in for it in a big way. But the prices are staggering. We restrict ourselves to 'free range eggs'. The thought of high-density battery farming of hens makes me feel quite ill.
    – WS2
    Dec 19, 2014 at 11:06
  • Antoine Lavoisier wrote that. (although he did not write it in english, and I would not find that traduction to be very accurate)
    – njzk2
    Dec 19, 2014 at 21:26

"Nothing artificial contained here" can be read as "no artificial thing [is] contained here". The word "artificial" acts as an adjective, modifying the pronoun "nothing". True, it happens to follow the word that it modifies, but it still qualifies that word.

If you intended the question "Can artificial be used alone without further qualification?" to mean "Can the word 'artificial' be used as a noun?" then the answer is generally no. Adjectives can be used as pronouns, but I doubt that that's the sort of use that interests you, and it's not a particularly common use for this adjective.

On the other hand, it can stand alone, for instance as a verb's argument. It functions perfectly well as a predicate adjective, as in "These flowers are artificial."

In the acceptable examples that you gave -- artificial fibers and artificial limbs -- the nouns don't qualify this adjective. Instead, this adjective qualifies the nouns. That point seems to be at the heart of your confusion.

  • This. Also consider Nothing purple contained here, which uses the same syntax, but makes the adjective clearer.
    – Bobson
    Dec 19, 2014 at 20:45

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