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What is the Difference Between Electronic and Electric?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 17, 2024
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In a number of instances, people tend to use the terms electronic and electric interchangeably. While both terms are commonly employed when discussing electronics, there is a subtle difference between the correct usage of each word. Here is what you should know about the proper way to make use of both electronic and electric when speaking or writing.

Electric has to do with the general concept of electricity. It is generally acceptable to use the terms electric and electrical interchangeably. Essentially, the word "electric" will function as a way of qualifying the flow of electricity as it relates to a specific event. For example, if a fire starts due to a problem with wiring in a building, the event can be described as an electric or electrical fire, caused by the electric or electrical wiring. The use of electric identifies a source of power that serves to create a logical effect when conducted through a process or device.

In contrast, electronic is a term that is descriptive of devices that are powered by electricity. An electronic device is often constructed using one or more electric elements that make it possible to manage the flow of electricity into the device. A television is a good example, since it is partially composed of a series of individual electric components that help to conduct the flow of electricity. In like manner, desktop and laptop computers are electronic in nature. Handheld devices such as cell phones are also electronic, while operating with the use of an electric component – a battery.

There does appear to be some gray area when it comes to defining various devices as being electric or electronic. Light bulbs are sometimes referred to as both electronic and electric. The common flashlight has also been described as both electronic and electric. The gray area seems to come into play when the device in question is both the means of receiving the flow of electricity and the origin of the completed function of the electronic aspect of the device. For example, the light bulb receives electricity from wiring, but at the same time emits light, which is the primary function of the device.

There are some differences in usage between electronic and electric that have to do with cultural factors as well. For example, it is not unusual for citizens of Great Britain to refer to the local power company as the “electrics.” In decades past, persons in the United States would often refer to small kitchen appliances as the “electric” skillet or the “electric” coffeepot, even though these types of appliances would be more properly known as electronic in nature.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including About Mechanics, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon949840 — On May 07, 2014

"Electric" is for the generation, transmission, or consumption of electric power.

"Electronic" is for whenever signal, data, or information is involved.

Electric devices do not necessarily involve electronics. But all electronic devices at least need incoming electric power to function.

Therefore, a simple toaster is electric; it consumes electric power to make heat to toast bread.

A modern coffee post is both. It consumes electric power to make heat for brewing the coffee. But the clock, and programmable timer, etc. are electronic, because they process and display information related to making coffee.

The wiring in our homes is purely electrical. But the devices we plug into our sockets are both electric and electronic.

By anon356534 — On Nov 26, 2013

The difference between Electrical and Electronics Engineering is that flow of electron is electrical, and flow of holes and electrons is electronics.

By anon348390 — On Sep 16, 2013

Electric is a conductor, while electronics are semiconductors.

By anon285982 — On Aug 18, 2012

Anon36672 post 4 said that "electronics are totally dependent on digitally transmitted", but I disagree. You can have analog electronics too, like analog tvs.

By anon146982 — On Jan 28, 2011

This is interesting, but I suppose I need someone with electrochemical background for what I need. If you think about electrostatic interactions between a polymer and the stomach lining - is it a part of electronic or electric interactions?

It is an interaction of oppositely charged functional groups that keeps the polymer in place in a wet environment.

If someone could please be so kind as to give me a leg up I would really appreciate it.

By anon123148 — On Oct 31, 2010

It very simple, really. A electronic device is one whose "main purpose" is to convey "data", i.e. telephone, TV. A bread toaster, for example would not be called "electric," even though it might have an electronic timer. A toaster's main purpose is to toast bread - so it's electric.

By anon123019 — On Oct 30, 2010

In the study of neuron and neuroscience, this distinction is indeed significant and underappreciated. All textbooks describe the neuron as an electrical device and model it functions as analogous to a circuit with capacitance and resistance.

The term impedance is applied but without the inclusion of inductors and frequency variable oscillatory properties. Obviously, nervous systems are composed of nerves that are attuned to discriminating frequencies (sight, sound, temperature) and harmonic patterns. So neurons and nerve signals should be better termed 'electronic' devices.

By anon63047 — On Jan 30, 2010

It is amazing that someone has not described the exchange of electrons across space as a defining element in the difference between electric and electronic.

The origin of "electronic" devices was the vacuum tube where electrons flowed from one plate to another across the vacuum. This is the fundamental defining factor.

As technology developed printed circuits and chips the concept of electrons moving over space, as opposed to through a conductor only, still fits.

The bottom line is that a device that only contains wiring as opposed to some other intermediary electronic component is an electric device. Take, for example, a variable speed drill. It would depend on the mechanism used to vary the speed, if the drill used old rheostat type technology it would be electric, if on the other hand there was a solid state transistorized circuit board that controlled the speed, that would fall into the realm of electronic.

By anon58306 — On Dec 31, 2009

... and I particularly take issue with the statement that "electronic is a term that is descriptive of devices that are powered by electricity". I have an old kettle that is just a simple submergible electrically-powered heating element controlled by an on/off switch. Clearly it is not electronic.

By prhkgh — On Dec 14, 2009

For anon 47583 and the oven in his (her?) lab. While neither an electrical engineer nor a scientist (just an old semi-retired "phone man"), here's what I'd ask myself:

1. Is it a simple old fashioned electric oven like could be found in a home in the 40s or 50s? Probably uses a rheostat dial to control how much electricity flows to the 'burners' and maybe some simple temperature sensor to interrupt the electric flow when a certain oven temp is reached. If it's like that I'd call it electric.

2. If it has a fancy flat control panel that you push semi-hidden-behind-the-surface controls, OR has a 'digital' display for time and temp, OR is a very precise instrument capable of extremely accurate temperatures, then I'd think it was electronic...probably with some sort of 'chip' or computer control.

Just my $0.02 worth....prhkgh

By anon56199 — On Dec 13, 2009

i found it very useful. thanks

By anon48474 — On Oct 12, 2009

I found the basic info useful, but not fully satisfactory. I work in a residential recovery center where clients are not allowed to have "electronic devices of any kind". But there is no consensus. They may, for example, have hair trimmers, electric toothbrushes, digital wristwatches, and flashlights. But they may not have clothes irons or electric (even analog) alarm clocks. Related to the purposes of the program here, they may not have entertainment devices, cell phones, or computers. But, that does not rationally explain the disparities noted above. I agree with prhkgh with reference to "chips". I wish this article offered a clearer distinction. --halcon

By anon47583 — On Oct 06, 2009

I found this information helpful to some extent. However I still need to know whether the oven in my lab is electronic or electric? I have been asked this question but I do not have an answer!

By anon38937 — On Jul 29, 2009

this is very helpful. i got my assignment from here

By anon36672 — On Jul 14, 2009

this article is really helpful, but somewhere there is a major difference between electronic and electric. is electronic totally dependent on digitally transmitted and electrical depends on DC base.

By anon20083 — On Oct 25, 2008

i am just so much excited for the fact that i have taken away the confusion i was having between electric and electronic. i am grateful for this help and i do wish to learn more.

By prhkgh — On Oct 24, 2008

As a 'phone man' in the decades during which phone systems transitioned to computer controlled systems, the difference between 'electric' and 'electronic' were if there were solid state components, 'chips', rather than electro-mechanical relays. Older devices had no 'computerization' or 'programming', and consisted of hundreds or thousands of electro-mechanical relays...these were 'electric'. Solid state devices that took over were 'electronic'.

By suji — On Oct 24, 2008

It very useful, i can learn more information.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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