A memory trick will help you remember the difference.
The Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, just announced that Kamala Harris is his pick for vice president, and she is the first of many things. Her father immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica, and her mother immigrated from India, so she is both the first Black woman to be on a major presidential ticket and the first person of Indian descent.
And here’s a piece of trivia that surprised me: According to the website FiveThiryEight, she is also the first person from west of the Rockies to ever be on the ticket for the Democratic Party—as president or vice president. Republicans, by contrast, have nominated eight people from the West, but not the Democrats.
So with all those firsts, do we call her selection “historic” or “historical”?
“Historic” is the word you want to use to describe an item or event that’s important or influential in history, so the right way to say it is that Kamala’s selection is historic. It’s definitely an important milestone in our history with all those firsts.
Other examples of historic things include
- Historic documents like the Magna Carta
- Historic ruins like the Roman Forum
- Historic battlefields like the Gettysburg Battlefield
- Historic artifacts like the Rosetta Stone
All of these are important or famous things from the past.
“Historical,” on the other hand, is the word you can use to describe anything from the past, important or not. A “historical event” is just something that happened in the past. It doesn’t have to be an event that people are going to talk about and remember as important 50 years from now. For example, Rutherford B. Hayes choosing William Wheeler as his vice president is a historical event because it happened a long time ago in 1876, but as far as I know, it wasn’t historic. History buffs may set me straight, but as far as I know, nobody today talks about the groundbreaking achievements or glass-shattering importance of Wheeler’s vice presidency.
And just as an interesting aside, while I was looking for an especially unremarkable vice president to use as an example, I read about a lot of vice presidents and came across Charles Curtis, who was Herbert Hoover’s vice president starting in 1928. He was the first and only person enrolled in a Native American tribe to ever serve as vice president of the United States.
His mother was 1/4 Kaw Indian, and he spoke the Kaw language and spent some time living on the Kaw reservation before getting involved in politics.
Curtis’s nomination was historic.
But getting back to things that are historical, historical documents are just documents that record things that happened in the past.
Historical novels are stories set in the past.
Historical artifacts could be something like scattered arrowheads you find in a field that don’t tell researchers anything new about their time period; they’re essentially just neat old things you found in the ground.
People often use the wrong word when they’re trying to choose between “historic” and “historical,” but you won’t anymore because not only did I just tell you the difference, I’m going to help you remember it with a memory trick Bonnie Mills came up with for a past article on this topic:
You can remember the meanings of these two words by thinking that the word that ends in “ic” is “important,” and they both start with the letter I; and the word that ends in “al” is “all in the past,” and those both start with the letter A.
“Historic” is important, and “historical” is all things from the past.
Bonnie came up with that tip in 2008, and I still use it every time I have to remember the difference between “historic” and “historical.” I’m not sure if it qualifies as a historic tip, but more than a decade later, it feels historical to me for a podcast.
'A historic' versus 'an historic'
Next, you may have noticed that I’ve been saying “a historic” and “a historical.” Because the choice between “a” and “an” is determined by the sound at the beginning of the next word, I agree with Bill Walsh, a former copy editor at The Washington Post and author of multiple language books. Although he pointed out that British people pronounce “historic” as “istoric,” without the H, and some Americans do too, he argued that the majority of Americans pronounce the H (“historic”), so the correct forms in most places in the United States are “a historic” and “a historical.” (3)
If you’re writing in Britain or writing for an audience where the majority of people pronounce it “istoric,” like maybe a local newsletter for Bostonites, feel free to use “an” instead. Fowlers Modern English Usage, a British style guide for example, recommends using “an.” (4)
I singled out Bostonites only because I had a professor from Boston who didn’t pronounce his H’s at the beginning of certain words. Things were definitely “istorical” to him, and we were also all “umans” instead of “humans.”
I first realized how contentious this topic is when I was out on my first book tour. I read from my book a bit and then answered people’s questions. I don’t remember what city I was in, but at one stop, when I answered a question about “a historic” versus “an historic,” and said essentially what I just wrote above, an older woman in the back of the room, stood up, shook her fist at me, and walked out. It was wild.
But I remain steadfast in my belief that there’s nothing special about the words “historic” and “historical,” and they should follow the same rules as every other word when it comes to choosing between “a” and “an,” so if you pronounce them with the “H,” you should write about “a historic event” and not “an historic event.”
To sum up, something historic is important, and something historical is all in the past. If you’re American writing for a broad audience, you should use the article “a” and write about “a historic event” and “a historical novel,” and if you’re British, you should probably use the article “an” and write about “an historic event” and “an historical novel.”
1. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 833.
2. Garner, B. Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, pp. 407-8.
3. Walsh, B. “Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—and How to Avoid Them.” Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2000, p. 96.
4. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, pp. 361-2.