Systematic vs. systemic

The adjective systematic means (1) carried out using step-by-step procedures, or (2) of, characterized, or constituting a system. It typically describes carefully planned processes that unfold gradually. Systemic, which is narrower in definition, means systemwide or deeply engrained in the system. It usually describes habits or processes that are difficult to reverse because they are built into a system.

There is some gray area between the words. When there is doubt, it’s usually safer to go with systematic, which is older and more broadly defined.

Examples

Systematic

But Shia say they suffer systematic job discrimination at the hands of the ruling minority, who are Sunni. [NPR]

They carried out a systematic review of previous research to examine the association between infrequent physical and sexual activity and acute cardiac events such as heart attack. [Irish Times]

Systemic

The hackneyed old complaints about systemic bias against women no longer seem convincing. [Globe and Mail]

Post-weaning multi-systemic wasting syndrome (PMWS) does not affect humans but attacks young pigs … [New Zealand Herald]

15 thoughts on “Systematic vs. systemic”

  1. Is there a word which could be used when referring to something which is done “by a/the system” (e.g. a computer system)? For example: “This is not a check which should be done manually by a person, it would be much faster if it was done systemically/systematically.”

    Reply
    • I would think that when referring to computers or operating systems, you could just say, “digitally” or “by/through/with the computer”. As in, “this would be a lot easier if it were done with a computer”. Neither systemic nor systematically really work for your example.

      Reply
      • Thanks. I agree. I hear people struggle with this all the time. I think the reason digitally or with a computer doesn’t work well always is because they are trying to distinguish from using a specific computer system and alternates which might be digital but not really part of an integrated system (e.g. spreadsheets).

        Reply
        • …. much faster if it was automated”, or “… if we wrote/bought some software to automate it”. In other words, use verbs to describe what you intend to do… rather than a vague description of the outcome.

          Reply
      • Well it can’t be done “by” the computer because it actually has to be processed “thru” the computer and it can’t be put thru the computer cause that would damage the computer.
        “With” the computer would imply interpersonal connections with the computer and human since and,we haven’t developed a computer capable of such intimate interaction yet, that word can’t be used here in this or that context.

        So…there

        Reply
    • I think of automated for computer systems, as in “… it would be much faster if it was automated.” This wouldn’t work for human systems, but you could say systematized.

      Reply
      • Perfect! I hate it when people use “systemic” when referring to computer systems. I had a boss that did that. Automated works perfectly. Just the word I needed for this email. Thank you!

        Reply
      • I agree that “automated” does not work well for discussing human systems, in that a primary goal of automation is to make humans more efficient so that less of them are needed to do the same job. Automation to an extent REPLACES humans.

        Reply
  2. Surely by your definition “Shia say they suffer systematic job discrimination” is wrong?
    Should be systemic – as in “deeply engrained in the system”?

    Reply
    • I agree 100%! The only reason I even read the comments was to see if anyone else objected to the NPR example. If you are going to use an example of a word in a sentence to illustrate the proper usage of the word, choose an example where the proper word is used!!!

      Reply

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