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'Systemic' or 'Systematic'?

"Systemic" and "systematic" are both related to the word "system," but they have different meanings.

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
An interconnected system, which is the root of systemic and systematic
The Quick And Dirty

"Systemic" means throughout the whole system. "Systematic" means methodical or intentional.

Steve M. from Springfield, Missouri, wrote, "[What are your] thoughts on the difference between using 'systemic' and 'systematic'?"

Both words come from the same root word, “system,” which we get from an ancient Greek word that described an organized whole that is made up of multiple parts, and it could apply to many things. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary gives examples that include a group of men but also a group of connected verses.

‘Systematic’

“Systematic” is the much older of the two words and the more common word. It arose in English in the 1670s, and it describes something that is thorough and intentional, methodical, or implemented according to a plan.

Doctors began a systematic treatment plan.

Ending systematic discrimination is a worthy goal.

‘Systemic’

“Systemic” entered English much later, in the early 1800s, and it seems as if it was first coined by doctors to describe something that happens or exists throughout a whole biological system, like the whole nervous system or even a patient’s whole body. 

He has a systemic infection.

“Systemic” also has a special meaning in the plant world where it can describe a type of pesticide that is safe for the plant itself but makes the entire plant poisonous to pests. These so called “systemic pesticides” are water soluble, so they are usually applied to the soil and are then taken up by all the parts of the plant as it sucks up the water.

Finally, “systemic” has taken on a broader meaning outside of medicine and biology to describe something that exists in multiple parts of an entire system like a government or business sector. For example, “Barron’s” reported in April that the Fed had averted a systemic financial crisis, and Reuters reported a few weeks ago that multiple people working the Italian healthcare system had been arrested because “systemic corruption has allowed very large illicit profits.”

‘Systematic’ Versus ‘Systemic’

There can be some overlap. A problem can be both systemic and systematic.

If you want to say something is methodical, organized, and intentional, call it systematic.

If you want to say something is widespread and affects many parts of something, call it systemic.

Pins image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Systemic means throughout the whole system. Systematic means according to plan.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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