Episode 133: September 9, 2008
Grammar Girl here.
Today’s topic is the difference between the words “historic” and “historical.”
A listener, Denise, wants to know if she should say, "We sell historic replicas" or "We sell historical replicas." Was an event "a historic occasion" or was it "a historical occasion"? These are good questions because it’s easy to get these two words confused. They sound alike and their meanings overlap, but the two words are used differently (1).
Now, Bonnie writes:
“Historic” is an adjective that means something important or influential in history. So Denise should say, “The treaty was a historic occasion.” It was an important occasion. It would be incorrect to say, “We sell historic replicas” unless they are replicas that are important to history. You’ve probably heard TV announcers refer to “historic treaties” or perhaps you’ve visited some “historic houses” or “historic battlefields.” All of these were important or famous things in history.
“Historical,” on the other hand, is an adjective that refers to anything from the past, important or not. Denise should say, “We sell historical replicas” because these replicas are from the past; they’re probably not so important. A “historical occasion” would be just some occasion in the past; it wasn’t necessarily an important occasion. “Historical documents” are just documents that record the past. You’ve probably read a “historical novel” or perhaps even a “historical romance,” which are books set in the past. There is nothing especially important about these books; if they were, they’d be “historic books.” The Gutenberg Bible would be a historic book, for example.
It’s common for people to mix these two words up. One style guide laments, “Examples of ‘historic’ used incorrectly for ‘historical’ could easily run for several pages” (2). William Safire said something that might help you remember the difference: “Any past event is historical, but only the most memorable ones are historic” (3). I’ve also created an odd memory trick to help you: You can remember the meanings of these two words by thinking that “ic” is “important,” and they both start with i, and “al” is “all in the past,” and those both start with a.
“A Historic” Versus “An Historic”
Throughout this podcast so far, I’ve said “a historic” and “a historical.” There are conflicting theories on whether to use “an” or “a” before these words. It’s all a matter of whether you pronounce the “h” sound. One authority, Bill Walsh, feels that Americans incorrectly use “an.” He acknowledges that “some British people pronounce ‘historic’ as ‘istoric,’ and that has led many Americans to believe ‘an historic’ is correct. It is not.” He points out that if you said the words “historic” and “historical” alone, you would hear an “h” sound, so you should say, “a historic” and “a historical” (4). Further, nobody would ever say a song was “an hit.” You'd say the song was “a hit,” and the “hi” sound at the beginning of “hit” is exactly the same as the sound at the beginning of “historic” and “historical.”
On the other hand, The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, a traditionally British-leaning style guide, holds an opposing view (3). It recommends that you say, “an historic” and “an historical,” but “a history.” I personally prefer “a historic” and “a historical,” but no matter which way you choose to say these words, you’re going to offend someone.
So, to sum up, something historic is important, something historical is all in the past, and in my opinion it's better to say “a historic” instead of “an historic.”