Have some empathy -- but empathically or empathetically?

Have some empathy -- but empathically or empathetically?
Photograph by Margaret H. Laing

(Author/editor’s note: My thanks to Dr. L.W., my onetime teacher and present-day good friend, for this fine idea of which word to defend.)

I have been asked to look for the difference between empathic and empathetic — both relating to the word empathy. At first glance I couldn’t tell which word needed more defending. Here’s what I’ve found.

My Webster’s New Twentieth Century dictionary, copyright 1968 (second edition), doesn’t mention either word. It does define empathy as being from the Greek word for affection, passion or feeling. The main definition reads “the projection of one’s own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him better; intellectual identification of oneself with another.”

There was not much empathy for my twenty-first-century search in my old standby… but it doesn’t have a personality, even I must admit.

Next stop was the Internet. Marko Ticak’s blog at Grammarly.com had one answer I wanted: Empathic is more common in scientific writing and slightly older, but empathetic is interchangeable with it… supposedly.

Empathetic seems to me to be a matching construction with “sympathetic,” even though they’re different emotions. (It’s the difference between “I know how you feel” and “Oh, how too bad.”)

But another citation at a site called Writing Explained defends empathic more strongly. Here’s a link.  Here’s a mnemonic from Writing Explained for how to pick which word to use:

“Remembering to choose empathic is easy, since empathetic contains the word pathetic, and you should try not to be pathetic. This is a very blunt mnemonic. It may come across as overly harsh, but it’s also more memorable as a result.”

So have some empathy — be empathic — and use empathic. Various sites in my Internet search argue, like the first I cited, that it is “nearly” or “supposedly” the same as “empathetic.” But I can’t locate anything that says one word or the other doesn’t exist — yet. Therefore, based on my previous rules for Words Worth Defending, I vote for keeping vocabulary and variety in the language. I’d use empathetic if I were trying to show a contrast with sympathetic, especially if I were trying to write something to sound good, but otherwise, I’ll use empathic.

Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook. Feel free to stop by with your own questions and ideas about words in the comments. 

Filed under: Words Worth Defending


Leave a comment
  • You make a good argument for 'empathic' but 'empathetic' has a better ring to it.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you. I think the "ring" is a good reason the longer word has developed -- it rhymes well with "sympathetic."

  • I thought one meant forceful, but no h after p, so I pass.

  • In reply to jack:

    No h after p? That's new to me. I think the forceful word you're looking for is emphatic (related to emphasis).

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Yes, it was.

  • In reply to jack:

    Oh, good. Thanks for letting me know.

Leave a comment