Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Why is it that we can ride around on electric bikes, but we play on an electronic drum set? Why can we shave with an electric razor, but we send messages through electronic mail? The difference between the two terms may sound rather inconsequential. It might feel rather arbitrary, but there is a clear distinction to be made.

If you compare the two words, the only difference is that electronic contains “on” in the middle. That really doesn’t mean very much on its own. While both terms are effectively derived from the same origin, the actual definition of each varies in how that origin is applied.

Now, I am neither a scientist nor any sort of engineer, so I’m not going to explain the finer intricacies of how all of this works. I really don’t have the faintest of clues how my smartphone is able to magically retreat a YouTube video over the Internet so I can laugh at some kittens tumbling over one another. What I can explain is the difference in simpler, more general terms.

Basically, if something is electric, it is powered by electricity. It uses electricity as an energy source. That’s why the Tesla Model S is an electric car. It uses electricity as a means of powering itself, unlike the gasoline that most other cars use. You might have an electric lawn mower instead of a gas-powered one. You might have an electric grill instead of one fueled by propane.

How electronic devices differ is that they manipulate the flow of electrons (electricity), typically as a means of recording or processing information. This usually involves some sort of integrated circuitry. Put more simply, it means that the device contains some sort of computer or computer-like chip. This could be anything from the new Kindle to a digital camera. Your car, with its internal combustion engine, might feature electronic fuel injection.

In this way, all electronic devices are electric, but not all electric devices are electronic. In a more practical sense, the distinction can get much more muddled. “E-cig” is short for an electronic cigarette, though your gut instinct might lead you think it’s more “electric” than “electronic.” It’s clear enough that a Tesla contains a myriad of electronics, just like your electric bike or razor… but we don’t really talk about an electronic razor.

And then you’ve got to consider virtual items like electronic mail (e-mail) and electronic books (e-books). Are they themselves really manipulating electrons to display information? Or is the device on which you access your e-mail and e-books the actual thing that is electronic? What about electronic payment or electronic signatures?

The difference may have been more important in the earlier days of technology. These days, it’s perhaps more a matter of emphasis. What’s more important about a Tesla is how it is fueled, not that it contains several microchips.