Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Historic vs. Historical: What's the Difference?

Camille writes:
Hi Snarky,
I love your blog. Could you explain the difference between historic and historical? I know they are both adjectives, but their dictionary definitions are so close. My ELA teacher says there is a difference, but she doesn't know how to explain it.
Thanks for bringing this up, Camille! These words are troublesome for a lot of people. A historic event is always historical. But a historical event isn't always historic. Confusing, eh? The terms are frequently mixed up and mistakenly used interchangeably, but there is a distinction between them.

Quick rules:
  • Use historical to describe any item or event that relates to the past but holds no particular significance. Any event that happened is historical. Any item from the past is historical. The museum contains many historical artifacts from the colonial era. The biographer put the general's life into historical context. My grandmother's attic is full of historical photos from past family events. The documentary film wove a lot of historical data into the narrative.
  • Reserve historic for any item or event from the past that holds a particular significance or influence; historic implies importance. The election of the first African American to President of the United States was a historic event. My class visited the historic battlefield at Gettysburg. 

Fine tuning:
  • Deciding to use historic is often a judgment call, since one person's historic event can be another person's historical event. For example, if Alex Rodriguez hits a game-winning home run in a clutch game, Yankee fans might call it historic. Baseball historians and Red Sox fans might say it was merely historical. A baby's first step is historic to her parents, but merely historical to her pediatrician. Lincoln was a historical figure who made many historic decisions. 
  • Coming from a different era isn't enough to make something historic. A well-preserved Victorian building should be called historical, not historic, unless something important happened there. The French Quarter of New Orleans is a historical district. Hurricane Katrina was a historic event.


    1. Shouldn't it be "The election of the first African American to President of the United States was AN historic event"?

    2. Great question. Thanks for bringing it up! I'm going to write a new post about this right now.

      This is an "ear thing." In the US, we generally pronounce the 'h' in historic, so we would say "a historic." But in some US regions and in other countries such as England, the 'h' in historic is not pronounced. In that case, it sounds better to say "an historic."

      So if you don't pronounce the 'h,' then feel free to say "an historic." :-)

    3. There is still lot needed to be done by the students and they would also be able to understand all those values which are considered to be pretty essential for the future success.