Is the term 'a proficient system' correct English? Or can the adjective proficient only be used to describe humans?

At least one dictionary (NOAD) defines the word in a way that makes it seem more appropriate for people than for systems:

proficient (adj.) competent or skilled in doing or using something : I was proficient at my job | she felt reasonably proficient in Italian.

I can find the expression "proficient system" on the Internet, yet it seems to be mostly used in a technical context, like in these examples:

Note: ELK-IP232 Serial to Ethernet Bridgemay be required to connect the Proficient System to network.

We incorporate all these essential diagrams to make trusted and highly efficient products while creating solid and proficient system architectures.

The DT RGC180 Capture Cradle is truly a proficient system that will protect your investment and enable you to expand the scope of your digitization program.

Concatenand molecules of lambda DNA were formed even in a recombination dificient system (Int-Red-Rec-) in the late stage of phage growth. No significant difference was observed in the formation of concatemers between recombination deficient and proficient systems.

Are these bad usages of the adjective proficient? Or can a system be proficient as easily as a human can?

  • Did you try to google for it? What were the results? Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 9:32
  • 1
    The example of Proficient System you gave was capitalized like a proprietary name, so not relevant. I do believe that something with executive capability can be proficient even if not human....although it anthropomorphizes a bit. i.e. IBM's "Big Blue" was so proficient at chess that it beat the grand master. My issue is that a "system" is a plan, or a network, not a player itself. The players within a system might be proficient but only when a "system" is synonymous with a processor would that seem to fit.. .. it doesn't feel comfortable unless you think of a system that way ? MY 2cents.
    – Tom22
    Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 1:53
  • 1
    Cats are proficient at catching small rodents. Some dogs are proficient at Frisbee. Gibbons are proficient at brachiating. Anything alive is proficient at something. So you are asking about a non-living system vs a living creature, not vs a human.
    – ab2
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 2:30
  • 1
    I'd say it's far from usual to use the adjective other than with humans and 'higher' animals (including say octopuses, crows). Commented May 27, 2019 at 15:58

1 Answer 1


To my mind, proficiency happens after learning something.

You become proficient after mastering a skill. A cat learns to catch mice from its mother and becomes proficient at it. A child becomes proficient at reading after learning at school. But the cat and child aren’t just generally ‘proficient’ - they are proficient at - mouse-catching, and reading, respectively.

I don’t think your first 3 examples work, because the system isn’t learning anything, or advancing in a specified area. The last example might, if the DNA is ‘learning something’ or ‘advancing towards’ something specific.

However, a system could cause an organisation or individual to become proficient, or more proficient. As in ‘the online learning system increased the students’ proficiency in French by 30%’.

An AI system could in my view, express proficiency - as it can learn. As in ‘the AI system quickly became proficient in predicting traffic jams’ (by, for example, learning and extrapolating patterns). So, it learned something, or acquired a skill.

Further, you need to be ‘proficient at’ something, or moving towards a specific goal, to use the term.

Proficient is from the Latin ‘proficere’ - to advance, make progress.

However if you said ‘the system is proficient’ I would be compelled to ask you ‘at what?’

Proficient at tennis. Proficient at filling in tax forms. Proficient at driving a car.

You’d need to specify what the system is proficient at.

For example ‘the system is proficient at predicting and utilising network lulls’. Or ‘the system is proficient in divining where oil is concealed underground’.

But ‘the system is proficient’ or ‘it’s a proficient system’ doesn’t work, as ‘proficient’ means ‘moving towards’ something - and in my view, you need to say - what.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.