Trace-element data for mid-ocean ridge basalts (MORBs) and ocean island basalts (OIB) are used to formulate chemical systematics for oceanic basalts. The data suggest that the order of trace-element incompatibility in oceanic basalts is Cs ≈ Rb ≈ (≈ Tl) ≈ Ba(≈ W) > Th > U ≈ Nb = Ta ≈ K > La > Ce ≈ Pb > Pr (≈ Mo) ≈ Sr > P ≈ Nd (> F) > Zr = Hf ≈ Sm > Eu ≈ Sn (≈ Sb) ≈ Ti > Dy ≈ (Li) > Ho = Y > Yb. This rule works in general and suggests that the overall fractionation processes operating during magma generation and evolution are relatively simple, involving no significant change in the environment of formation for MORBs and OIBs. In detail, minor differences in element ratios correlate with the isotopic characteristics of different types of OIB components (HIMU, EM, MORB). These systematics are interpreted in terms of partial-melting conditions, variations in residual mineralogy, involvement of subducted sediment, recycling of oceanic lithosphere and processes within the low velocity zone. Niobium data indicate that the mantle sources of MORB and OIB are not exact complementary reservoirs to the continental crust. Subduction of oceanic crust or separation of refractory eclogite material from the former oceanic crust into the lower mantle appears to be required. The negative europium anomalies observed in some EM-type OIBs and the systematics of their key element ratios suggest the addition of a small amount (≤1% or less) of subducted sediment to their mantle sources. However, a general lack of a crustal signature in OIBs indicates that sediment recycling has not been an important process in the convecting mantle, at least not in more recent times (≤2 Ga). Upward migration of silica-undersaturated melts from the low velocity zone can generate an enriched reservoir in the continental and oceanic lithospheric mantle. We propose that the HIMU type (eg St Helena) OIB component can be generated in this way. This enriched mantle can be re-introduced into the convective mantle by thermal erosion of the continental lithosphere and by the recycling of the enriched oceanic lithosphere back into the mantle.