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A reviewer of my thesis told me that I am wrongly using the word problematic. He suggested that I use problem instead. I have since read the definition of both words and neither correspond to the French definition I was looking for, so I am asking this community if it is correct to use this word to refer to the object of research in the context of a thesis.

If not, should I use problem instead, or a completely different word? Here is an example sentence:

This thesis provides potential solutions to the problematic outlined.

I know that some of you might think that it is not a real question, but please remember that word usage is of the hardest part of English writing for native French speakers.

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Problematic is a typical case of a false friend. Where French has problématique, German has Problematik, Russian has проблематика, etc., English does not have problematic. Instead, it has "a complex of problems" or "a problem set". –  RegDwigнt Mar 14 '12 at 23:04
Oh, and then there's problematics (plural) as well as (drum roll please) problematique. Courtesy of Vitaly in our chat. –  RegDwigнt Mar 14 '12 at 23:20
If your thesis topic is in one of the humanities and your thesis advisor is in any way pro-post-modernism, then use the word as Foucault would. Otherwise, stick to @RegDwigнt 's suggestion. –  jlovegren Nov 21 '14 at 0:07

8 Answers 8

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Yes, you should definitely use problem instead. Problematic (as an adjective) is how one would describe something that poses (or can pose) a problem.


a: a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution
b: a proposition in mathematics or physics stating something to be done


a : posing a problem : difficult to solve or decide
b : not definite or settled : uncertain
c : open to question or debate : questionable

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Which dictionary are you using ? Most British ones (eg Chambers), and certainly many English teachers, say that problematic means 'of the nature of a problem', which fits well with your 2 and 3, but is absolutely not 1. Which causes problems for students. –  TimLymington Mar 14 '12 at 22:23
Merriam-Webster. I will move my links and admit that I should consult other dictionaries. :) –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Mar 14 '12 at 22:29
Perhaps it's a UK/US thing - I (American) have never seen problematic used as a noun. –  Lynn Mar 14 '12 at 22:45
That is indeed problematic. –  Jim Mar 14 '12 at 22:49
From the noun entry for problematic: First Known Use of PROBLEMATIC: 1957 –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Mar 14 '12 at 23:01

It should indeed be problem: problematic is the adjective, problem is the noun.

That was problematic.

I have a problem.

Words that end in -atic are very often adjectives.

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@JasperLoy: Except one finds the latter mainly in the plural: problematics. Cf. mathematics &c. –  Robusto Apr 8 '12 at 14:26

I have struggled with "problematics" as a noun for a while when I started reading some French academics and took a lecturer who studied in France. At first I thought they were wrong but I just accepted it. Later on I was suprised by the usage also used by non-French academics.

Here are some examples from the Oxford English Dictionary:

B. n. Thesaurus »

Freq. in pl. A thing that constitutes a problem or an area of difficulty, esp. in a particular field of study.

1892 W. Wallace Logic of Hegel (ed. 2) 385 Krug's proposal (in his ‘Fundamental Philosophy’, 1803) to start with what he called 'philosophical problematics'.

1910 Amer. Jrnl. Sociol. 16 376 The presupposition of all representation, which has no part in the never wholly suppressible problematics of its contents.

1957 R. K. Merton Social Theory (rev. ed.) ii. Introd. 127 Working out its problematics, i.e., the principal problems (conceptual, substantive and procedural).

1997 Church Times 14 Mar. 14/3 We have a series of brilliantly original readings of the parables, to demonstrate their anchorage in the particular problematic of the day.

2004 Chicago Tribune (Nexis) 11 Apr. c1 Poems preoccupied with the problematics of seeing, of perspective, of the philosophical implications thereof.

Note that I got this from a public library website in New Zealand. I'm not sure if the Oxford English Dictionary is offered through other parts of the world libraries. See if the librarian can help.


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You use problematic if you want to impress people. I mean, why say problem when you could much more fancily say problematic. Fifty years ago, almost no one used problematic. It's like resonate today. Everybody who wants to be impressive, must use that word. Ten years ago, no one used it. When someone says, "That resonates with me," I just hear gongs going off in my head. When I really agree with something, I just say I dig it. But then, I am an old hippie. Art Holmberg, Yachats, Oregon

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Although if you do want to impress, be very careful of your audience, given the wide confusion and lack of consensus as to its meaning. You risk sounding either pompous or stupid (or both). –  itsbruce Nov 21 '14 at 9:41
Yes, Bruce, that is exactly what I was getting at, the use of problematic is often pompous and stupid. Like saying "At this point in time," rather than simply saying "now." –  Art Holmberg Nov 21 '14 at 19:07

I found this discussion quite helpful.

But in my own words I would (as a translator) sum up what the French mean by "une problématique" thus: it is a problem or a set of problems together with an approach to them putatively suited to finding a satisfactory solution.

Since we have no single English word to denote this, my practice has been to use "problematic" (preceded by an article, when in the singular) as a noun. The (English and American) readers of the kinds of texts I translate (philosophical in a broad sense) are generally sufficiently sophisticated to know that this admittedly new use of the word has a special meaning, and so will try by the context to get a sense of it.

And I would say that in my observation the term, used as a noun in this way, has been appearing here and there for some time now in English--at least since the 1960s.

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Problematic communicates that the idea or topic discussed either causes or has a history of causing a problem. The word problematic is actually in itself problematic. I propose that it should be changed to probmatic - as I have often heard it pronounced.

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This does not answer the question, if the OP should use "problem" or "problematic" in the sample sentence. –  Theresa Oct 9 '14 at 20:35

It's a shame that people can leave answers on this forum who clearly don't have a good command of English, whether they're native speakers or not.

Your use of 'problematic' is grammatically correct, a perfectly reasonable choice of words, and indeed indicates a fairly sophisticated vocabulary. You should politely correct your examiner in their error.

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How is it correct? I would say that an adjective can't go there, there needs to be a noun. –  Matt E. Эллен Dec 22 '13 at 16:11
Well, there is en.wiktionary.org/wiki/problematic#Noun –  RegDwigнt Dec 22 '13 at 17:50
Fair enough, although this is the first time I've encountered it and I've been a problem all my life. –  Matt E. Эллен Dec 22 '13 at 23:41

I myself use the word "problematic" in the sense of a theoretical concern or a subject needing discussion which is what i saw scholars doing in seminars and conferences. I think you are using the word correctly. Those who rush to dictionaries every now and then may not be always right. Words are fast acquiring new meanings in specialized academic fields and sometimes dictionaries are slow to catch up . ---Dr Sharad Rajimwale

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Are you a native speaker of English? Can you provide other evidence that that this use of the word is common, such as corpus evidence? Because otherwise why should we trust what you say? –  curiousdannii Jul 17 '14 at 11:57

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