Historic vs. historical?

Historic and historical are two adjectives with different meanings. Historic describes significant moments, figures, or objects in history. Historical describes anything that concerns the past or a specific era.

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What is the difference between historic and historical?

Exaggerators beware: if you enjoy writing about past events, understanding historic vs. historical is a must-know. While either term is a derivative of the noun “history,” there’s a big difference between these commonly confused words.

In general, the adjective historic describes something as historically notable or significant with a lasting effect. English speakers often use this adjective to narrate past events, whether it’s a political election, natural disasters, battle story, or even a scientific breakthrough.

In contrast, the adjective historical describes something that concerns history or belongs to a previous time period. For instance, a ‘historical society‘ infers a club dedicated to studying subjects from the past. Likewise, we might use historical to describe a book or movie that examines or describes a past era. 

Why do we use historic and historical differently?

While the differences between historic and historical are subtle, using “historic” incorrectly can drastically change the message of your writing. As noted by The New Oxford American Dictionary, the word historic can “imply a greater significance” to something than is necessary (“Historic” 824). 

For instance, let’s say The Word Counter claimed to write a “historic grammar lesson” it would appear as though we wrote a groundbreaking analysis on grammar. But if we published an article on “historical grammar” instead, the topic would imply a subject that discusses grammar history. See the difference? 

What does historic mean?

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, the word historic is an adjective that describes something that is ‘important in history’ or something that had an ‘influence on history.’ For example, 

“The Acropolis of Athens is a historic building in Greece.” 
“The 1969 moon landing was a historic moment for the United States.” 
“The 1918 pandemic was a historic event.” 
“The fall of the Berlin Wall was a historic occasion.”

Synonyms

Celebrated, consequential, earthshaking, eventful, famous, great, groundbreaking, important, landmark, major, momentous, monumental, notable, notorious, remarkable, renowned, significant, substantial.

Antonyms

Inconsequential, insignificant, minor, negligible, small, trivial, unimportant. 

What does historical mean?

As noted by The New Oxford American Dictionary, the word historical is an adjective that describes something as concerning history or past events (“Historical” 824). In this sense, any documented fact or artifact is “historical,” whether they are important or not. 

Sentence examples include:

“The Declaration of Independence is a historical document.” 
“Before the revolutionary uprising began, another historical event unfolded.”
“There is no historical evidence to support such claims.” 
“Some people collect sculptures as historical objects.” 

Lastly, the word adjective can relate to “historical novels” or “historical films” when it describes a plot that takes place in the past, whether it’s historically accurate or not. For example, Charles Portis wrote a historical novel called True Grit, which later turned into a historical film. But while the story’s plot takes place in an actual time period, the book and follow-up movie are entirely fictional

Synonyms

Actual, ancient, archival, chronicled, confirmable, documentary, existent, factual, hard, literal, matter-of-fact, nonfictional, objective, old, prior, recorded, true, verifiable.

Antonyms

Fictional, fictionalized, fictitious, nonfactual, nonhistorical, unhistorical. 

How to use historic vs. historical in a sentence?

The most challenging aspect of historic vs. historical is learning their appropriate contexts. If you’re still in doubt, review the following definitions:

  • Only use historic to describe significant, real events or periods from the past. 
  • Use the word historical to describe anything that concerns the past and/or belongs to a different era. 

Example sentences with “historic

“Tuscaloosa business added to the National Registry of Historic Places.” –– The Tuscaloosa News
Historic Swanton Pacific Ranch looks to pick up the pieces after being ravaged by fire.” –– The Mercury News
“Jane Austen is among the many historic authors who were inconsistent in how they used the apostrophe.” –– BBC News
“By far, the most dramatic approach to preserving historic structures involves equipping them with devices to make them buoyant.” –– The New York Times
“… a dedicated group of linguists and teachers are rebuilding languages from sources such as historic word lists that might contain only 100 words.” –– ABC Radio National

Example sentences with “historical

“Colonial Williamsburg reopens with a $42 million addition—and a renewed focus on historical accuracy.” –– Architectural Digest 
“A tidbit of historical intrigue is baked into this Alexandria house.” –– The Washington Post
“This is a report about an investigation involving a sitting president, which comes with strong national interest and its own historical precedent.” –– The New York Times
“From a historical point of view, it is known that the city has a very old settlement.” –– Hürriyet Daily News
“A Dublin hotel removed four statues and sparked a historical debate.” –– Atlas Obscura

What about “an historic” vs. “a historic”?

In regards to English grammar, the only significant rule for historic vs. historical involves indefinite vs. definite articles. According to Garner’s Modern English Usage, the correct phrases are “a historic” or “a historical” (Garner 464). 

The confusion stems from the 18th-19th centuries, where Americans didn’t pronounce the letter h of “historical” or “historic.” But since then, American English began pronouncing the h more, allowing the definite article (a) to make more sense than an indefinite article (an). 

General rule:

Any time there’s a word that begins with a consonant sound, use the definite “a” article. For words that begin with a vowel sound, use the indefinite “an” article. 

Additional examples include: 

  • A historic.” (definite)
  • A historical.” (definite)
  • An hour.” (indefinite)
  • An honor.” (indefinite)
  • A hill.” (definite)
  • A hatchet.” (definite)

Test Yourself!

Do you think you have a grasp on historic vs. historical? Test how much you’ve learned with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. The word ______________ describes historically significant events. 
    a. Historical
    b. Historically
    c. Historic
    d. All of the above
  2. The word ______________ can imply greater significance to something than necessary.
    a. Historic
    b. Historical
    c. Historically
    d. History
  3. American English uses ______________ before “historic” and “historical.”
    a. Indefinite pronouns
    b. Relative pronouns
    c. Definite pronouns
    d. A and C
  4. A work of fiction that takes place in the 18th century is called  ____________.
    a. Historical nonfiction
    b. Historiographic literature 
    c. Historical fiction
    d. A and B
  5. Which of the following is a synonym of “historic”? 
    a. Chronicled
    b. Notable
    c. Verifiable
    d. Factual

Answers

  1. C
  2. A
  3. C
  4. C
  5. B

Sources

  1. Dean, C. “A Historic Neighborhood Confronts Rising Seas.” The New York Times, 8 Jul 2019. 
  2. Garner, B. “Historical.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 464.
  3. Historic.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  4. Historic.” The Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  5. “Historic.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 824. 
  6. Historical.” The Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  7. “Historical” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 824. 
  8. Kelsey-Sugg, A. “Kids are keeping Aboriginal languages alive — and learning just how different they are.” ABC Radio National, 5 Jul 2018. 
  9. Mervosh, S. “‘Redacted’ Is Word of the Day as the Mueller Report Lands.” The New York Times, 18 Apr 2019. 
  10. Remains of Phrygian to be searched in Kütahya Castle.” Hürriyet Daily News, 14 Aug 2020. 
  11. Schumacher, H. “Have we murdered the apostrophe?BBC News, 24 Feb 2020.