-ic vs. -ical endings



Could you please explain the difference between historic and historical?

Adriana Guerrini


English has a number of parallel adjectives with -ic and -ical endings. They are similar in their forms and origins but somewhat different in their meanings and uses. Here are some pairs with their differences.

1. historic/historical:

Historic means unique, important in history, famous, something that happened for the first time. It also implies that the event itself made history:

The first trip to the moon was a historic event. (Some people might say AN historic event.)

Historical usually refers to history in general; it means that the event was part of a long story about the past:

"War and Peace" is a historical novel (a novel based on real events in history).

Napoleon's historical importance is enormous (his importance in the history of Europe).

2. economic/economical:

Economic refers to the area of financial activities:

Spending by consumers is one indicator of economic stability.

Economical means good value, inexpensive, not wasteful:

Buying a kilo of oranges is usually more economical than paying the price for each orange.

3. comic/comical:

Comic refers to comedy or humor in phrases like comic book, comic strip (newspaper cartoon), or comic actor. It can describe a type, like something or someone that makes you laugh, as in a comedy; it's intended to make you laugh.

He was often described as a brilliant comic actor, but Alec Guinness actually played many serious roles, too.

Comical (somewhat formal in use) means humorous, funny, amusing; something that makes you want to laugh because it strikes you as funny or silly at the moment, not necessarily because it was intended to.

The dog had a comical face.

The lawyer's outrageous defense of his client was so far-fetched that it was comical.

4. classic/classical:

Classic means memorable, an outstanding model or example of a class. The representation is good all by itself, and does not have distracting or trendy features:

The Ford Model T is a classic car.

Classical refers to a historically important form in music, art, or architecture based on ancient Roman or Greek models:

Beethoven composed symphonies in the classical period.

5. electric/electrical:

Electric means operated by electricity (and is sometimes used interchangeably with electrical).

My grandmother didn't have an electric washing machine; the one she had was operated manually.

Electric also means very vibrant, giving a pleasant shock:

The actor's performance was electric.

Electrical (used less often) refers to a circuit of electricity:

The storm damaged the electrical connection to my computer.

6. politic/political:

Politic means tactful, shrewd, clever; acting in one's own interest in an group or community:

Leaving the business was the only politic thing he could do after his mistake.

Political refers to the politics of running a government:

There are two major political parties in the United States.

7. problematic/problematical:

Problematic is preferred more than problematical although they are both used in the same way with the same meaning of puzzling, difficult to solve, uncertain:

The scientist's interpretation of the research data was problematic.

Because parallel pairs of adjectives like these are often problematical, it is helpful for students to have a good dictionary.

Barbara Matthies

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