Empathetic vs. empathic

Empathic is usually just a variant of empathetic, which means characterized by empathy. Some dictionaries, especially American ones, list empathic as the standard word and empathetic as the variant, but while the shorter word is indeed the original, empathetic has prevailed—probably due to analogy with sympathetic, with which it is often closely associated—and is now about five times as common as empathic in newswriting, blogs, and mainstream books from throughout the English-speaking world.

There are qualifications to this, though. While empathetic has prevailed in popular usage, the older, shorter form is still preferred in scientific writing, including writing on psychology, where the word has a breadth of meaning not fully captured in popular usage. Empathic is also favored in certain types of nonscientific writing, including modern spiritual writing and self-help writing. All these factors likely explain why the below ngram, which graphs occurrence of the two forms in a large number of 20th-century English-language books and periodicals, shows empathic to be more common despite empathetic being clearly preferred in most contexts:

Empathic Vs Empathetic English

Meanwhile, empathic has developed the latter-day sense very in tune with the thoughts and feelings of others, which it does not share with empathetic. This sense is mostly confined to pseudoscientific writing about supposed psychic powers.


Empathetic is the form typically found in news publications, blogs, and other mainstream sources—for example:

His adversary, the Lorient coach Christian Gourcuff, tried to sound empathetic but probably made things worse. [New York Times]

When he talks about figit pie or bara brith it’s a stern reader that doesn’t find herself overtaken by a bout of empathetic dribbling. [Guardian]

Gran, the tough-but-fair warden in a juvenile detention centre, was one of Lilley’s finest and most empathetic creations. [Sydney Morning Herald]

Now, in a case like that, and in yours, one can’t help but feel empathetic, even a little impressed. [Globe and Mail]

Empathic, meanwhile, is commonly found in writing on science and psychology as well as in spiritual and self-help writing:

Empathic responding, most notably perspective-taking and empathic concern, has important implications for interpersonal functioning. [Journal of Marital and Family Therapy]

Few of us routinely practice empathic listening, the most advanced form of listening. [Stress Management for Life]

It must be explained, nonetheless, that natural healing relies basically on an empathic transfer of energy through healing hands or focused thought forms. [Natural Pet Healing]

See also

Empathy vs. sympathy

Other resources

Detailed analysis at Language Log

20 thoughts on “Empathetic vs. empathic”

  1. Empathic and empathetic have been used interchangeably in counseling
    research, however empathic has been used more often. Empathy is
    understanding the inner world of another but recognizing that experience
    is not your own. From my understanding, you may tap into your own
    experiences to understand where the person is coming from, however, the
    respect for that person owning the experience or feelings is an
    important distinction from sympathy, when someone has walked that path
    and shares their experience in a way that extends sorrow or feeling
    sorry for another’s loss, more specifically. However, sympathy can
    prevent someone from understanding the difference between their own
    feelings and that of another, so in counseling, empathy is the place to
    reside in the therapeutic or helping relationship.

  2. I’d’ve been  more impressed if the examples cited as “most major
    publications” had not been the popular press alone, but included
    anything scholarly.  One has only to listen to local news broadcasts
    (and the occasional US president) to know that what may be most popular
    is not correct.

    • Good idea. We’ve been trying to find ways to include examples from more scholarly sources, but access is a problem. Most news sources that publish online are free, so finding examples there is pretty easy, but we do try to stick with the ones that have pretty high editorial standards.

      • My experience is similar to Kayla Boyce. Psychology professionals seem to use “empathic” while non-specialists more frequently use “empathetic.”

  3. Empathetic sound too much like “pathetic”. Another “bleeding heart” linguistic construct by sociopaths in control of our culture.

    • pa·thet·ic
      adj. relating to or affecting the emotions.

      Root word: PATHetic – Pathos

      n. an appeal to the emotions of the audience.

      So yeas, ’empathetic’ does sound like ‘pathetic’. Please do your research before posting a harsh comment like yours.

  4. So what is the way to describe a state of mind in which a person “absorbs” the feelings of another? For example, a close friend loses her mother and you are pained and in tears because your friend is pained and in tears. This is not pseudoscientific or psychic stuff.

    • I would used the term “attuned” in that instance. It’s not absorbing because the other person does not lose the emotion when you acquire it, yet it is passed on like a fire from a candle to another candle.

    • If she really is absorbing the feelings and that’s the point you’re hoping to make, use empathic. If she is able to keep her own feelings separate but is in loving communion with the other, use empathetic. I think it’s problematic that these words are being used interchangeably. They have distinct meanings.

  5. I tend to think of “empathetic” as leaning toward the “compassionate” end of the spectrum whereas with “empathic” I think more of the ability to practice empathy than the actual practice of it and/or application of it in compassion. For instance I might think of a sensitive, kind, and life-experienced elderly lady as being empathetic but I would think of a sci fi character or maybe a guru or a monk-like detached person (who have the ability to tap into the feelings/thoughts of others) as being “empathic”. Maybe just me but that’s what associations I have with the terms!

    • Michael, you said this perfectly, and I agree with you completely. If we use “empathic” when we mean what you define as “empathetic,” we’re going to lose the meaning of the word “empath” in the mix. An empath is, as you said, someone with the ability to tap into the feelings/thoughts of others. I’m seeing health care workers being asked to be empathic instead of empathetic. I hope this reverses itself soon.

  6. Using empathic, while not incorrect, wastes the readers’ time, due to the fact that most of us see it as an error and are forced to look it up. :)

  7. Nobody has yet mentioned what seems obvious to me, that “empathetic” is analogous to “sympathetic”; the word “sympathic” isn’t even in the dictionary. They both have greek roots, so logically should take the same form.


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