Historic vs. Historical: How to Choose the Right Word

These adjectives may sound alike, but they aren't interchangeable

George Washington at the Constitutional Convention
This illustration depicts the Constitutional Convention – a historic event. Fotosearch/Getty Images

Several centuries ago, “historic and “historical” were considered synonyms. However, over time, their definitions diverged, and the two words are now far from interchangeable, despite how similar they may seem. Both words are adjectives used to describe something related to the past, but the correct word is determined by the significance of the noun being described. 

How to Use Historic

The word "historic" refers to any event, object, or place that is considered an important part of history.

It is the more selective of the two terms.

Anne Frank’s house, the life story of Cleopatra, and the first computer are historic. By contrast, a brooch worn by an anonymous noblewoman from a prior century would not be considered historic, unless that brooch happened to have a special, notable role in some historic event. 

How to Use Historical

The word "historical" refers to anything and everything that has happened in or is connected to the past, no matter its level of importance. 

While the Battle of Gettysburg is a historic event that influenced the outcome of the American Civil War, the soldiers' daily breakfasts would be considered historical events—unless one such breakfast was the scene of a pivotal or famous moment. Historical is also the term you’ll see preceding the names of museums and other institutions.

Examples

Differentiating between "historic" and "historical" allows us to talk about the past more precisely.

Consider the following examples to deepen your understanding of the distinction between the two terms: 

  • Historic text vs. historical text: The Bible and the Declaration of Independence are both indisputably important parts of history. As such, they are both historic texts. A diary written by an anonymous teenager during the Great Depression would be considered a historical text. We can also use the word historical to describe historical fiction, which refers to a novel or story written about (but not necessarily during) a historical time period.
  • Historic object vs. historical object: If a museum advertises an exhibition of historic objects on display, they're stating that the objects are historically significant. The Rosetta Stone and the Spirit of St. Louis are historic, whereas a table from the 1800s is historical.
  • Historic day vs. historical day: The day Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech, the end of the second World War, and the signing of the Bill of Rights were critical to the molding of history and thus are all historic days. historical day, on the other hand, is simply any day that occurred in the past.
  • Historic map vs. historical map: If a map is called historic, it is because the map itself has had a prominent place in history, perhaps to plan an important battle or document the establishment of a city. A historical map is any map that was produced in the past. A historical map likely conveys the history of the place it depicts, but the map itself is not historically significant as an object.

How to Remember the Difference

Mixing up "historic" and "historical" is a common grammatical pitfall. To remember the difference, call upon the words of writer William Safire: “Any past event is historical, but only the most memorable ones are historic.” Rely on the following memory tricks to ensure you always use the right word:  

  • “Historical" has more letters than "historic," just as the definition of "historical" encompasses more events, objects, and people than the definition of "historic."  
  • “Historic” ends with the letter C. "C" stands for "critical." Historic objects or events are critical components of history. 
  • “Historical” ends with the letter L. "L" stands for "long ago." Historical objects or events relate to anything that happened in the past, but may or may not be historically significant. 

“A” Historic Event versus “An” Historic Event

Sometimes, the confusion around "historic" and "historical" arises not from the words themselves, but from the indefinite article that precedes them. Recall the rules about how to use “a” or “an”:

  • When a word begins with a consonant sound, use “a.”
  • When a word begins with a vowel sound, use “an.”

    In American English, both “historic” and “historical” have an audible “h” sound, so they must be preceded by “a.” The fact that British pronunciation sometimes omits the consonant sound in both terms further complicates the matter, but American English speakers can simply remember to use "a." 

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    Bussing, Kim. "Historic vs. Historical: How to Choose the Right Word." ThoughtCo, May. 17, 2018, thoughtco.com/historic-and-historical-1689568. Bussing, Kim. (2018, May 17). Historic vs. Historical: How to Choose the Right Word. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/historic-and-historical-1689568 Bussing, Kim. "Historic vs. Historical: How to Choose the Right Word." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/historic-and-historical-1689568 (accessed May 26, 2018).