Tricky Words: Icky -ic and Fickle -ical Adjectives

When you catch an adjective, kill it. Sound advice from a writer who has managed to finagle his way into literary history. (See full quote below or more quotes here) That said, does that make him historic or historical? Are his works classic or classical? Don’t know? Well then, enjoy this non-scientifical post on adjectives in their -ic and -ical forms.

Adjectives are describing words for those of you who missed that in the third grade. Words like big, heavy, red and wooden describe nouns. Crazily enough there is an adjective order when using multiple modifiers. I won’t go in depth, but suffice to say “your wooden, heavy, red, big beret really accentuates your eyes” is ridiculous, and not for obvious reasons.

Some adjectives end in -ic: athletic, basic, poetic, scientific and sympathetic. Fine, no problem here.

Some adjectives end in -ical: cynical, logical, magical and musical. No problem here either.

And finally some roots take the -ic and -ical endings. Sometimes these variations are synonymous as is the case with diabolic(al) and orthographic(al).

Things get tricky when the varying adjectives with the same root actually come to have different meanings. For instance:

The financial reports are economic (pertaining to the economy) in nature but not economical (cheap, inexpensive) in price as it costs both your thumbs and your spleen to read them.

The classy man (wearing a bow-tie) in the classic (of the highest quality) ’56 Chevy blasted classical (of or relating to the first significant period of an area of study) music as he drove through my classroom.

This historical (from the past) house built in 1823 is not historic (historically significant) because absolutely nothing has ever happened here.
The unprecedented, historic happenings of Occupy Wall Street will be historical in the future; as will everything.

Only historical.

I am sure there are plenty more examples of this last sort. The way I like to think about them is in terms of Venn Diagrams. Both variations of the adjective are derived from a root; the meanings or senses of the adjectives in question overlap with each other to a degree. In the case of orthographic and orthographical, the overlap is complete with the difference in frequency attributed to preference, region or any other number of social or linguistic factors. In the case of classic and classical however, you can see that the overlap is less and therefore you will see a divergence in the meaning of the two adjectives. The case of historic and historical has one more wrinkle. The Venn Diagram approach works but an approach derived from classical logic works better. All things historic are necessarily historical but converse is not true. Just because they happened in the past does not make them significant.

As I said, this post was going to be non-scientifical and my method here proves that. But at least I hope to have shed a bit of light on a topic that may seem icky or fickle to some, namely to those who are learning English as a foreign language.

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
Mark Twain in a letter to D. W. Bowser, 20 March 1880


  1. A great article, thanks for clarifying this and helping me prevent some classic mistakes. I will refer to back to it. I also love Mark Twain’s quote. A wise man!

    P.D. What was that guy doing driving through your classroom?

  2. Hi Andre,
    Thanks for commenting, the guy was actually on his cell phone! LOL

  3. margo

    I love reading your posts, but this one is extra fun! I think I feel a little more confused than I did before, but that’s because I’m American and I rarely thing about things fickle or icky, preferring rather to live in my dream world. I’m going to pass this on to some friends I know will enjoy it. Thanks!

  4. Nice post, Dustin, both educationalic and amusingic!

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