"-ic" vs. "ical": The distinctions can be fickle

Cheesy blog post titles aside, in my opinion, one of the trickier elements of English is the use of adjectives ending in "-ic" vs. those ending in "-ical" when they share the same root. For instance, is it "electric cord" or "electrical cord"? Although hardly scientific or academic, a simple Google search reveals 184,000 results for "electric cord" and 274,000 for "electrical cord." While the latter option is the clear winner, a very sizable minority uses the former. To make matters even more confusing, in some instances the distinction appears relatively clear. English speakers would probably feel that "electric guitar" is a much better choice than "electrical guitar" and "electric eel" is definitely preferable to "electrical eel." Similarly, English speakers would probably vastly prefer "electrical engineering" to "electric engineering." 
"Electric" is generally defined as something that uses, provides, produces, transmits, or is powered by electricity; "electrical" refers to something that simply has to do with electricity. Obviously, there is a considerable amount of overlap here. Why the difference? Both "electric" and "electrical" would seemingly refer to something that has to do with or powered by electricity. At first glance, this would appear to be redundant. After all, in many Romance languages, this discrepancy does not exist. In French, for instance, both "electric" and "electrical" are translated as "électrique." And a number of English roots have only one option; for example, we say "fantastic" and not "fantastical," "terrific" and not "terrifical." 
It would appear that the morphological rules in English regarding "-ic" and "ical" are quite complex, perhaps suggesting that the meanings of forms with "-ic" and "-ical" have either become more similar or have diverged over time. Consider "numeric" and "numerical," which would appear almost interchangeable (referring to numbers), as would "botanic" and "botanical" (referring to plants). Conversely, "economical" (referring to a thrifty solution) is quite different from "economic" (something relating to the economy), just as "politic" (an adjective meaning "prudent" or "shrewd") differs from "political" (having to do with politics).   
The Maven's Word of the Day site discusses the difference between "historic" and "historical," a particularly confusing pair.  It is generally accepted that something that is "historic" is important in history ("a historic event"), but that something that is "historical" simply has to do with history "a historical museum").  (And don't even get me started on the controversy between "an historic/historical" and "a historic/historical"!)
The site states that "The earlier word is historical, from the early fifteenth century. Historic is first found in the early seventeenth century, and the use of historic to mean 'important in history', is more recent still, from the late eighteenth century. The distinction between the two words is therefore relatively recent. Nonetheless, the distinction seems a worthwhile one, and since it is straightforward, you might as well follow it."
Hence, we can conclude that the rules regarding "-ic" and "-ical" are hardly set in stone, have a number of exceptions, entail varying degrees of confusion if flouted, and will likely continue to be a headache for non-native- and native English speakers! 

(posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken)


محمد إدريس said...

Hi Silas,
Another interesting post from you.

The problem you have raised is actually one of things that have convinced me long time ago that my knowledge about English, and any foreign language for that matter, should always remain tentative. I teach English and sometimes come across things that defy accepted rules. Prepositions are notorious for that.

Today I explained to my tutee that we should not add anything suffix to root verbs with ‘to’ e.g. ‘I want to buy a sandwish’. As far as I know, we cannot say ‘I want buying a sandwich’. However, what about ‘I look forward to seeing you’. Why not ‘to see’?

I think there are always cracks in the grammar of many languages. This is what we call exceptions. And this is something that many people know. It’s nothing new. However, many people, especially language learners, do not seem to be aware of such cracks. This makes language learning a difficult and confusing process for them.

محمد إدريس said...

Another problem is that there are often ongoing changes in languages. And it may takes hundreds of years before those changes are complete, even though they may not be 100% complete (example English regular vs. irregular verbs). This makes some aspects of grammar unstable and difficult to account for.

Some time ago I took a semantics course that was taught by one of my professors. He talked a lot about the so-called sign-based theory, which says that every sign in language, no matter how small it is, has a meaning and thus a function. This is true if you consider words like ‘big’ and ‘huge’. It is obvious that each of them conveys a different level of intensity.

Nevertheless, I think that there may exist in a language some pairs that DO have the same meaning. One of them may be in the process of pushing the other out of language or out of its semantic realm i.e. the other word may acquire a different meaning or level of intensity so that it can stay in the language. That, of course, may take tens or perhaps hundreds of years. Maybe this is what is happening with ‘electric’ and ‘electrical’.

Thanks a lot.

Silas said...

Hello again, Mohamed, and thanks for reading and for your comments. I agree with you on these points. Language is very human and "natural" (at least when we're speaking about "natural" languages), so it sometimes evolves a bit sloppily, without clear distinctions. Morphology (the study of structures and parts of words) is far from a precise science, which is why, at a given point in history, sometimes these distinct morphological units may overlap and appear redundant, and at other times they appear quite necessary. Your observation that one form may eventually win out while another becomes obsolete over time suggests a type of "Darwinian" linguistic survival of the fittest. This is indeed what often happens over time in language (look at the loss of almost the entire case and gender systems for nouns, definite articles, and adjectives in English).

Your example of verbs as evidence of instability in language over time is spot on. In fact, irregular verbs in some modern Germanic languages are called "strong verbs" while verbs that are inflected for different tenses simply with regular suffixes are called "weak verbs." Supposedly, "strong verbs" are designated as such because they are strong enough to "use their own resources" when being inflected for tenses (thus resisting the pressure to conform to the the regular "weak verb" trends of inflection). In English,"to sing" ("Sing"/"sang"/"have sung") would be a strong verb, while "to talk" ("talk"/"talked"/"have talked") would be a weak verb. Who knows how this strong/weak instability will be resolved in the distant future? Personally, I suspect that there will always be some irregularities.

Interestingly, seemingly redundant duplicates or quasi-duplicates are also seen in lexical items, often due to borrowing from various sources. In English, we have "royal" and "regal" from French and "kingly" from Anglo-Saxon. However, sometimes each apparent synonym acquires a connotation of its own, which may be why it has survived thus far.

Thanks again, Mohamed!