The Grammarphobia Blog

Isn’t it problematic?

Q: Can “problematic” and “problematical” be used interchangeably? Are both correct?

A: Yes, both words are legitimate, and they mean the same thing.

The longer one, “problematical,” first appeared in print in 1567, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “of the nature of a problem.”

The word was used later in the 1500s in reference to both geometry and logic. (The OED notes that a “problematical question” in logic was one “put forward merely for discussion, but not of any practical importance; an academic question.”)

The shorter version, “problematic,” was first recorded in 1609 and means the same thing, “of the nature of a problem.” (This too has a specific meaning in logic, where a “problematic” proposition is one that “asserts that a state of affairs is possible rather than actual or necessary,” according to the OED.)

In addition, “problematic” and the plural “problematics” are sometimes used as nouns in English, as in these recent citations: “the particular problematic of the day” (1997) and “the problematics of seeing” (2004).

Both “problematical” and “problematic” have been in use pretty steadily since they first appeared. If I had to choose, though, I’d go for the more concise “problematic.” A quick Google search tells me it’s vastly the more popular word.

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