Being historical doesn’t make it historic

Regular reader Steve G. asked recently:

Historic vs. historical, is there a difference? Should historical really even be a word?

There certainly is a difference, and both words have their uses. It’s worth knowing the definition for each so that you can use them correctly.

Let’s start with historical: it’s the more commonly used word (by about four to one in recent use, according to Google N-grams) and is less opinionated. In most cases, historical doesn’t imply a judgement, and merely sticks to the facts. I like the definitions from GMAU here, so I’ll quote them liberally (these are from GMAU, 422):

Historical, meaning “of or relating to or occurring in history”…A documented fact, event, or development–perhaps having no great importance–is historical.

Historic, on the other hand, carries the weight of significance or importance. That significance might not be agreed upon by all, but the user of the word historic believes it to be true:

The Alamo is a historic building…An event that makes history is historic; momentous happenings are historic–e.g.: “The Supreme Court’s historic decision…won’t be known for months.”

It’s a historical fact, for example, that I had cheerios for breakfast. But it was not historic that I had cheerios for breakfast (unless somewhere there is a cult that attaches great importance to my choice of breakfast cereal).

GMAU notes that historic is frequently used incorrectly for historical; the opposite error (using historical for historic) is made less often. Historic for historical is cited as Stage 3 usage in GMAU‘s classification (widespread; common even among some educated people; but still wrong and should be corrected); historical for historic is a less-tolerated Stage 2 usage (“widely shunned“).

It wasn’t part of Steve’s question, but I think a few words on pronunciation are in order when it comes to historic and historical. I normally stick to the written language here, but sometimes a note on the spoken form is helpful.

In American English, these words should always take the article a and not an. This is a historical blog post (it happened in the past); it’s not an historical post. The 2012 presidential election was a historic event (it was important); it wasn’t an historic occasion. GMAU (page 1) provides a discussion of this pronunciation issue, concluding (as you’d expect) that using an with historic, or habitual, or humble, and so on, is pretentious. “No authority countenances” it, and several quality citations are offered, including Fowler, Mark Twain, and linguist Dwight Bolinger, who wrote that using an historical demonstrates “a Cockneyed, cockeyed, and half-cocked ignorance and self-importance, that knoweth not where it aspirateth” (American Speech , Vol. 50, No. 3/4 [Autumn – Winter, 1975], pp. 313-315, available on JSTOR). Garner wraps up by suggesting that “an humanitarian is, judged even by the most tolerant standards, a pretentious humanitarian.”

Thanks for the question, Steve. I hope this answer is helpful!

= = = = =

While we’re on the subject of helpful, I’d like to try to get a bit more feedback on this blog overall. I haven’t figured out how to do full-blown questionnaires yet, let alone one that will pop up as an overlay, but you should now see a single-question poll in the right hand column.  I’d appreciate it if you’d respond — and please respond each time you visit. The ongoing data will be useful. Thanks!

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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3 Responses to Being historical doesn’t make it historic

  1. Steve Gantt says:

    Chris, Thanks for the article; it is helpful. I’m not sure I agree with everything, but it is good to have a learned opinion, and the benefit of all that research. I will now give more credibility to uses of both words which I encounter, and will, no doubt, evaluate those uses for correctness in light of the explanation of the “differences” you present. I believe some of the published “experts” may not be, but that they receive credibility and following just because of their published status. Given that you recognize a valid word status for “historical,” usage becomes the important part of this then for me.

    If it would have allowed me to, I would have checked both of the last two choices on the poll.

    • Hi, Steve – thanks for noticing the poll and clicking!
      As for any reluctance to use both words, I should have offered two other pieces of information which might factor in. First, OED has old citations for both words, but they actually have a citation for *historical* that’s about 80 years earlier than the first for *historic*. Both words have a long heritage, but the one you like less seems to have been around longer.
      Second, while the usage I explained in the post is the accepted standard today (early 21st century), that hasn’t always been true. In some of the older citations, the words are used interchangeably. It’s hard to tell without thorough research, but if I had to guess from a cursory look then I’d say that the distinction really began to settle in as “best practice” sometime in the 19th century, and that it was well established with most authorities by the 1920s or 1930s. I hope that’s useful.

  2. Pingback: Your problem might be systemic, but it’s probably not systematic. | thebettereditor

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