Historic and Historical

Commonly Confused Words

George Washington at the Constitutional Convention
A historic event is one that was very important. A historical event is one that happened in the past. Illustration of George Washington at the Constitutional Convention. Fotosearch/Getty Images

There's a small but still significant difference in meaning between the words historic and historical.

The adjective historic means important, momentous, or historically significant.

The adjective historical means relating to the past.

Use the indefinite article a, not an, before historic, historical, historian, and history.

Examples

  • On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered a historic speech declaring, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."
  • "The Hudson River Valley, with its lush views and rich cultural landscape, has become one of the most endangered historic sites in the country because of encroaching development by electrical utilities and other industries."
    (Winnie Hu, "Industrial Growth Threatens Scenic Hudson River Valley, Group Warns." The New York Times, June 27, 2000)
  • "Dad memorized historical facts, like the years each president served in office, and he'd repeat these dates in an effort to calm himself."
    (Amber Dermont, "Lyndon." Damage Control, 2013)
  • "Are you an amateur urban archaeologist? Do you search for historical treasure in your city, whether through mudlarking or metal detecting?"
    ("Urban Archaeology: What Historical Objects Have You Found in Your City?" The Guardian [UK], September 14, 2016)
  • "Four major [documents], the closest sources to the historic King Arthur, are accepted as historically rooted and most reliable."
    (Frank D. Reno, The Historic King Arthur. McFarland, 1996)

    Usage Notes

    • "Historic is a word which implies judgment, since by definition it describes something significant. But . . . historical is an essentially neutral term, describing anything which occurred in the (distant) past."
      (Philip Gooden, Who's Whose: A No-Nonsense Guide to Easily Confused Words. Walker & Company, 2004)
    • "Do we say that the President's visit to this small town was a historic or historical event?
      The event was historic. Use historic (Greek histor, 'learned man') when the thing referred to is important, memorable, or famous. True, it may figure in history and may, in fact, be historical. But historical is a broad term meaning concerned with or relating to history. In other words, historical has to do with history; historic usually pertains to the event or thing itself. Armstrong's walk on the moon was a historic event. It was history-making. The Alamo is a historic building; Gone with the Wind is a historical novel."
      (Morton S. Freeman, The Wordwatcher's Guide to Good Writing & Grammar. Writer's Digest Books, 1990)

    Practice

    (a) The first appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show was a truly _____ moment in American pop culture.

    (b) "All _____ changes finally boil down to the replacement of one ruling class by another."
    (George Orwell, "James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution," 1946)

    Answers

    (a) The first appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show was a truly historic moment in American pop culture.

    (b) "All historical changes finally boil down to the replacement of one ruling class by another."
    (George Orwell, "James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution," 1946)

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "Historic and Historical." ThoughtCo, Nov. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/historic-and-historical-1689568. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, November 9). Historic and Historical. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/historic-and-historical-1689568 Nordquist, Richard. "Historic and Historical." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/historic-and-historical-1689568 (accessed January 18, 2018).