Your problem might be systemic, but it’s probably not systematic.

Systemic or systematic? Do you know the distinction?

This is one of those situations where a writer (or editor) with just a little less knowledge than the situation requires can easily make a mistake and assume that one word is simply a near-miss incorrect spelling of another…like solution and soliton, or humerus and humorous, or wold and world, or flow and floe. For that matter, this kind of mistake could even happen with words like wend and wind, or even dessert and desert. It’s a good example of why you should always look up new words and spellings when you encounter them, even if you think you know what they mean.

Like historic and historical (the subject of a recent post), systematic might appear to some to be systemic with an extra two-letter syllable shoved in. While the two words share the same root (system), they have distinct meanings. They’re not interchangeable at all.

Systematic is the more frequently used word (currently by about a 3:2 margin, although there have been times over the past two centuries when it was closer to 6:1; this data courtesy of Google N-grams). Assuming that it’s always being used correctly, systematic means ‘according to a system or an organized plan.’ If you follow a system (or plan) when you perform an action or work through a problem, you’re being systematic.

Systemic, on the other hand, doesn’t have anything to do with following a system. Systemic instead describes a system as a whole. If every part of a system is affected by a problem, this can accurately be described as a systemic problem; if an entire organism has been infected by a virus, it is suffering from a systemic infection. While there’s nothing inherently negative about systemic as an adjective, you’ll find it primarily used with a negative connotation.

The systematic for systemic error is one that I see with some frequency, and it came to my attention last week in an article in a B-level newspaper that (at least with me) has a reputation for B-level copyediting. (I don’t mean any insult by that comment, it’s simply that the quantity and types of errors that I notice in their pages suggest that their copyeditors are either not very experienced, not well paid, or both.)

Here’s the quotation, by the way, so that the rest of this analysis will be easier to follow:

Three utility companies will pay more than $24 million in penalties for “systematic failures” in their response to storm damage and power outages last year.

However, in this case it would not be at all fair to blame this error on the copyediting. As I poked into it, I discovered that the source of the error actually seems to be the state agency quoted in the article.

In fact, we should give the copyeditors praise on this one: of the first nine publications I looked at which quoted this source, five noted systematic failures” (in quotation marks, as shown here), thus correctly preserving the context and the exact language of the source. But three others made the mistake of using this same incorrect wording (systematic failure) outside of the quotation marks – where they should have corrected it to systemic. Only one made the (wrong) decision to correct “systematic” to “systemic” within the quotation; that’s a noble effort to make the words on the page reflect what was meant, but that’s overstepping the bounds of good editing (they should instead have used [sic] to denote that the words on the page are correct, despite their incorrect meaning in context).

The press release issued by the state agency involved was the actual source of the error. Here’s the relevant wording (and here’s the text in full):

In the case of National Grid, the DPU found systematic failures in the company’s preparation for and response to both storms and ordered that National Grid undergo a comprehensive, third-party management audit of its capacity for responding to emergency events.

Unless the Massachusetts DPU intended to suggest that National Grid followed an organized plan for their failures, then the wrong word was used. The utility should have been held accountable for systemic failures (and ordered to correct them systematically).

Be systematic about your own use of these words. If you’re referring to an entire system, it’s systemic. If you mean the plan or organization being used, then it’s systematic.

= = = = = = = =

Thanks, regular readers, for your patience. This post would have gone up about five days ago, but I couldn’t finish it after spraining a thumb, which made typing slow and error-filled. It’s healed enough now that I’m back near normal — after pulling off a dinner of glazed ham steak, asparagus, and crunchy baked potato wedges tonight, I really have no excuse to avoid the keyboard!

Thanks also to those who have responded to the poll (on the right column of the page). Please do so, if you haven’t already (and feel free to respond each time you visit).


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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3 Responses to Your problem might be systemic, but it’s probably not systematic.

  1. Pingback: What if we held a contest and nobody won? (The 2012 word of the year.) | thebettereditor

  2. Pingback: For your consideration and amusement | thebettereditor

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