Systematic and Systemic

By Maeve Maddox

Mark, one of our readers, requests a discussion of the difference between systematic and systemic.

Both adjectives derive from the noun system which, in late Latin, meant a musical interval, that is, a difference in pitch between two notes.

While retaining its original meaning, the Latin word came to mean, in addition:
a union of several metres into a whole, the universe, body of the articles of faith, an organized whole, government, constitution, and a body of men or animals

systematic [sis tuh MA tik]

In its most common use by the general speaker and writer, the adjective systematic means “Arranged or conducted according to a system, plan, or organized method.” A novelist, for example, may have a systematic method of organizing note cards.

More specialized meanings of systematic occur in the writings of philosophers, statisticians, and biologists, as the following examples from the OED illustrate:

Logic:
When the same words are used in sentences which express different kinds of propositions, yet in each case the usage is significant, then these words are said to have ‘systematic ambiguity’… This ambiguity is systematic because it can be formulated according to a rule.

Statistics:
an error with a non-zero mean, so that its effect is not reduced when observations are averaged.

Natural history:
Pertaining to, following, or arranged according to a system of classification; of or pertaining to classification, classificatory.

systemic [sis TEM ik]
Note: Beware the pronunciation. I once heard a radio reporter pronounce it as “sus tee mik.”)

The adjective systemic is chiefly a scientific term meaning “belonging to, supplying, or affecting the system or body as a whole.” It is often used to refer to a condition that affects the nervous system in particular.

Read the labels on your gardening supplies. If your herbicide, insecticide, or fungicide is described as “systemic,” it kills the pest you’re after by entering its system and making its way throughout the plant’s or animal’s tissues.

In 1961 M. A. K. Halliday came up with the term “systemic grammar” to describe a method of linguistic analysis. The rationale for the use of “systemic” instead of “systematic” in this instance eludes me, but then, so does the meaning of this OED example which records the use of the expression:

The grammar that assigns to sentences structures like the one in Fig. 1 is generative fusion of elements of American-style immediate-constituent analysis, European-style dependency theory, and British-style systemic grammar.

Unless you are referring to an organism, you probably want the word systematic.

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11 Responses to “Systematic and Systemic”

  • Benjamin Baxter

    Note that the definition of organism is important, too. There might be systemic flaws in NAFTA, for example. Systemic as I’ve heard it can also apply to recurring, and usually in the negative.

    I’m not sure about this, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

  • marketeer

    Okay, this brings to mind Preventative vs. Preventive. Unlike Systemic and Systematic, they seem to have the same meaning. Is one preferred over the other?

  • Dan

    It could be a systematic problem with a systemic effect.

    For example, suppose a certain administrative procedure is required for a wide range of approvals within an organization, and it develops a problem. Maybe it’s time-consuming, or maybe it fails to implement its intended spirit. That would be a “systematic” problem.

    If the effect is wide-ranging, creating inefficiency or fostering corruption in many of the organization’s functions, that would be a “systemic” effect.

  • paul richardson

    My feeling is that “systematic” describes actions or arrangements that are according to a system. “Systemic” covers attributes of the system. E.g. if there are problems with the system like instability or logical errors then these are “systemic” problems.

  • phisky

    I think I am right when I say the mis-use of the word systemic is becoming widespread ?.. and a useful distinction eroded.

  • Nicole Neiman

    thnks for all the clarifications. they were very helpful…..

  • SM

    “Systemic” is not used solely when speaking about the body and organisms… it is also used in the legal world, mainly in regards to Title VII employment discrimination cases. Such as “systemic disparate treatment”

  • Tiffany

    I agreed with “SM” above – I hear “systemic” on a daily basis, never in reference to the body.

    My sister explained it to me best:
    systematic – methodically
    systemic – system-wide

  • Andy

    I took a course in racism and law, and this was a big issue. systemic racism is when there are laws that affect a certain race. in Canada, these types of laws cannot exist because we have the charter of rights that protects racial minorities. Therefore, systemic refers to the system.
    Systematic racism on the other hand is dependant on the private members within a society or system. Systematic racism occurs when there is discrimination between a group of people to favour themselves, while ignore / discriminate against another.
    The Prof. explained that this is the difficulty in uprooting racism…
    hope this was helpful.

  • abashi

    3. Though business ethics covers a variety of topics, three basic types of issues are: (Points : 1)
    Systematic, corporate, and public
    Systematic, corporate, and individual
    Individual, group, and social
    None of the above

    This is a question in a business ethics class. I am thinking to choose the last answer “None of the above” because the answer in my textbook uses “systemic” as opposed to systematic.

    Seems it is getting more clear –
    Systematic = the way to do something
    Systemic = the effect of

    “To introduce some order into this variety, it will help if we keep separate three different kinds of issues that business ethics investigates: systemic, corporate, and individual issues. Systemic issues in business ethics are ethical questions raised about the economic, political, legal and other institutions within which businesses operate. These include questions about the morality of capitalism or the laws, regulations, industrial structures and social practices within which U.S. businesses operate” (Velasquez, 2012).

  • abashi

    Well – here’s the news:

    I just submitted my test and got 9 out of 10 questions correct! The one I got wrong was the “systemic” versus “systematic” question.

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