Given the recent conversations about and demonstrations against racial injustice, the words “systemic” and “systematic” have been popping up a lot, and are sometimes used interchangeably. And while they do have the same root word, they also have different meanings. If you’re not quite sure exactly when to use each word, Mignon Fogarty (aka “Grammar Girl”) and the good people at Grammarist have spelled it out for us. Here’s what to know.
Let’s start with the root word: system. According to Dictionary.com, the word “system” was first recorded in the early 1600s and derives from the Greek sýstēma, “a whole compounded of several parts.” There are several different ways the word can be used, including “a form of social, economic, or political organisation or practice,” per Merriam-Webster. This definition is applicable when discussing practices like racism. Now, let’s break down the differences between “systemic” and “systematic.”
As Fogarty explains, “systematic” is the older — and more common — of the two words, dating back to the 1670s in the English language. The word is used to describe something that is thorough and intentional, methodical or implemented according to a plan. She offers these examples:
Doctors began a systematic treatment plan.
Ending systematic discrimination is a worthy goal.
Now let’s discuss “systemic.” The word has been used in the English language since the early 1800s, and Fogarty says that it appears as though doctors were the first to coin the term to describe something that happens throughout an entire biological system — like a patient’s body, or the digestive system. An example of this would be: “He has a systemic infection.”
Since then, the word “systemic” has been used in the context of something that exists in multiple parts of an entire system like a government or business sector. According to Grammarist, “systemic” is the more specific of the two words and means “systemwide or deeply engrained in the system.” That’s where its use in terms of racism, for example, comes in: It typically refers to “habits or processes that are difficult to reverse because they are built into a system.”
‘Systemic’ vs. ‘systematic’
With that in mind, Fogarty says that some problems are both systemic and systematic — so there’s some overlap — but they’re not interchangeable. She sums it up with this:
If you want to say something is methodical, organised, and intentional, call it systematic.
If you want to say something is widespread and affects many parts of something, call it systemic.